nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 6, 2006
If you cherish fine acting, then you may want to look in on Shining City, where Brian F. O'Byrne is giving one the season's loveliest and most evocatively understated performances as a priest-turned-psychologist named Ian. Since he's a therapist by trade and for much of the play's running time we're watching him at work, what we see him do mostly is listen; he does so with an eloquence that takes us inside his character's head and heart non-stop.
Even when Ian is alone—as he is a good time of the time, for he's just left his fiancée and their small child for a new life on his own; plus he's just opened this office in a quiet but fitfully unruly building in Dublin—O'Byrne offers us keen insight into this man. Watch him flick and flick and flick an uncooperative lighter with continual frustration and see how out-of-sorts and off-kilter Ian's life is at the moment. Watch him—hilariously—try to wrap a big droopy stuffed teddy bear in not enough wrapping paper, and understand the sadness, the inadequacies, the compromises and compensations that define this unfulfilled existence.
O'Byrne's string of great performances has been uninterrupted since he first made a name for himself in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (and includes The Lonesome West, Frozen, and last season's Doubt). This is another milestone for him. His work here is certainly the most compelling reason to see Shining City, which is being presented on Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore, a house that is probably too large for this intimate, playful drama.
It is, mostly, a ghost story; that's familiar terrain for author Conor McPherson, who here places his trademark monodrama style within a more traditional multi-character play format. Ian is the protagonist of this piece, and in two sharply written scenes we meet his fiancée, Neasa, who becomes increasingly desperate as she realizes that Ian is serious about dissolving their relationship, and a young man named Laurence with whom he engages in some tentative romancing as a kind of test of his true orientation and nature.
But for most of Shining City, we observe Ian in the presence of one of his patients, a businessman named John who is having a rough time getting over the death of his wife. She was killed in a freakish tragic accident, but as John's reminiscences proceed we come to understand that it wasn't just the terrible suddenness of her death that has turned his life upside down—he is carrying around with him huge wads of guilt, some earned, some perhaps not. His sessions with Ian—in particular one at the center of the play in which he recounts the history of a mild extramarital liaison—help us discover the ghosts that are haunting John, and help him exorcise them.
They also awaken the ghosts that Ian is trying to flee from. Whether the physician is able to heal himself I will leave for you to discover and decide for yourself.
Oliver Platt plays John, and his characterization is complicated and compelling, though it's hampered by a haphazard and inconsistent Irish accent; he's best when he's not attempting it, as I wish he had not. (Dialect coach Deborah Hecht appears to have met with little success here, with the play's other two actors, Martha Plimpton and Peter Scanavino, also failing, somewhat distractingly, to convince us of their Irishness.)
Platt has the play's most technically demanding job, which is delivering the very long monologue on the therapist's couch that reveals many of the secrets and themes of the piece. It seemed to me that director Robert Falls let him (and us) down badly by keeping him immobile on the couch: it's hard to watch someone talk without moving for 20 or 30 minutes. Why didn't Falls let Platt move around a bit?—this isn't a Beckett play, after all, and even if the reality of the situation might be slightly compromised, what would be gained in audience engagement would more than make up for it.
Plimpton and Scanavino have much less to do, but they do it quite well, especially the latter, who creates an authentically interesting young man in just a few minutes of stage time.
In the end, though, it's Ian's story and it's O'Byrne's play, and even with a very odd final surprise seemingly tacked on at the end, Shining City makes for generally satisfying theatre.