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Shining City

Matthew Broderick and Billy Carter                                    photos Carol Rosegg



                                                          By Ron Cohen


Matthew Broderick brings laid-back charm and a beguiling Irish brogue to Conor McPherson’s drama, making it a rather friendly ghost story.


Irish Repertory Theatre has captured some marquee power for the reopening of its handsomely renovated jewel box of a space: Broadway luminary Matthew Broderick starring in Shining City by Conor McPherson, one of Ireland’s most celebrated living playwrights. The result is a surprisingly engaging but not especially chilling revival of this ghost story of a play.


After mountings in London and Dublin, Shining City, which delivers an intricate meditation on grief, guilt, faith and psychological isolation, won acclaim on Broadway with a Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2006, garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Set in Dublin, the script concerns a novice therapist, Ian (Billy Carter), and his patient, John (Broderick), who’s come for treatment after seeing the ghost of his wife, recently killed in a horrific automobile accident. The apparition has caused him to halt working, leave his house and move to a bed and breakfast. The play’s five scenes also delve into the troubled personal life of Ian, who was once a priest, unsure of his sexuality and now has left his girlfriend and their baby.


Through some daringly extended and brilliantly written monologues, we learn of John’s childless marriage, his growing emotional distance from his wife, of woefully aborted attempts at extramarital sex and the guilt which asserts itself in rage against his wife. All this culminates in his feeling responsible for her death. It is Ian’s job, while dealing with his own turmoil, to convince John that ghosts do not exist, that he needed to punish himself to find his way back to living. And while at play’s end, Ian seems to have succeeded in curing John and even in getting his own life back together, McPherson makes sure that the question of ghosts and hauntings cannot be so easily dismissed.


Lisa Dwan and Billy Carter


Ciarán O’Reilly has directed the play gracefully, but there seems to be little probing beneath the surface. This is a script that seems to demand subtext – a lot of it – to reveal the depth of John’s pain and the emotions swirling within him and how they play on the quietly listening Ian. John’s speeches are filled with halts, broken phrases and “you know”s when other words fail. Broderick is not an actor for subtext. He rides through most of John’s speeches in a becalmed manner made somewhat charming with a musical Irish brogue. While he does eventually hit some poignant and urgent notes, the character, for the most part, exudes the air of a fanciful spinner of interesting yarns. You enjoy listening to him, but it’s never terribly gripping.


This robs the play of much of its mystery and even somewhat diminishes Billy Carter’s nicely nuanced embodiment of Ian. The character probably could use more to react to, if we are to be caught up in his tangled network of dilemmas. These come more alive in Ian’s confrontation with his girlfriend Neasa, who has arrived at his office with a desperate plea for him to come home. Lisa Dwan, in a strong and appropriately overwrought performance, instills in the woman a frightening and unrelenting hysteria.  Completing the four-person cast is James Russell, who in a brief scene, plays a male prostitute that Ian brings to his office for his first foray into sex with a man. Russell instills in the encounter a sense of both threat and gentleness.


However, it is Broderick’s performance -- which could almost be termed delightful -- that colors the play overall. It brings to the fore a lot of unexpected humor, but where’s the marrow-freezing desolation and terror? Even Charlie Corcoran’s set, depicting Ian’s office in what’s said to be a terribly rundown building, has a comfy if spare look about it. And the play’s often-talked-about twisty ending, while not performed as written in the script but carrying the same implication, comes across as more of a blackout punch line rather than the shocker it’s probably supposed to be.


Playing at Irish Repertory Theatre

132 West 23rd Street


Playing until July 3