We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
At times, the debt that Studio’s production of Shining City owes to Mamet and Pinter can seem downright usurious. Over and over again, Conor McPherson’s characters abandon a sentence just before the verb kicks in, only to back up and take another running start. This is a theatrical high-wire act: Even when a playwright has a good ear for where to bend dialogue without breaking it (and McPherson’s is very good indeed), it comes off terribly mannered and stiff if mouthed by actors who aren’t up to the challenge.
The reason it’s so tricky is that all those stammered beats and breaks and ya knows must appear to well up out of the characters’ chests. We have to understand where the self-consciousness that’s driving the showy circumlocution is coming from. Fortunately, the four actors in Studio’s staging, led by a faultless Edward Gero, are all over that.
Gero is John, a Dublin widower who has begun to see visions of his dead wife. In a series of scenes that amount to one extended monologue, Gero consults Donald Carrier’s timorous Ian, an ex-priest turned therapist. Remarkably, although John’s monologues take up much of the play’s running time, they speed by. A lesser actor would feel compelled to linger over speeches as densely packed with humor and loss as these are, but Gero, if anything, underplays them. He knows that John is a storyteller, and even his therapy sessions should be driven by the heedless narrative momentum of the stories he tells. So Gero lets John stumble upon the emotions instead of milking them. When, in the course of relating one particular event, John is suddenly overcome with remorse, Gero imbues the moment with a raw physicality that surprises him, and us, with its power.
It’s tough to take your eyes off Gero while he’s spinning tales, but force yourself. You’ll likely catch Carrier’s gangly therapist listening to John’s stories as raptly as you are. You can almost see dangerous new thoughts sparking in Ian’s head as he listens. And when those thoughts are eventually given life in the form of a down-on-his luck younger man (a wryly funny Chris Genebach as the play’s most grounded character), Carrier squeezes a surprising amount of expressiveness into his character’s rigid, diffident mannerisms.
In ghost stories, it’s feelings of guilt that leave the door open to the supernatural, and both Ian and John are so wracked with remorse they’ve left out welcome mats. McPherson dramatizes the roots of Ian’s guilt in an early scene showing Ian rejecting girlfriend Neasa (a heartbreaking Laoisa Sexton) in his characteristically diffident, awkward, excruciatingly self-involved fashion.
Why, then, do we leave the theater with a much clearer sense of John’s emotional landscape, while Ian’s guilt—which we’ve seen enacted before our own eyes—still seems feathery and abstract? Perhaps it’s because that rejection scene between Sexton and Carrier goes on considerably longer than it needs to, adding layers of unnecessary complications and mitigating factors to something that should be stark and absolute. Or maybe it’s because, effective though he is, Carrier never makes us appreciate the terrible weight of conflicted emotions that Ian presumably feels toward this woman. As the scene plays out, we see his irritation, exasperation, even his rage, but the only way the play’s final scene can land with anything like the force it needs to is if we sense that Ian actually empathizes with her.
Because that empathy never registers, the evening proceeds vaguely off-balance: Compared to John’s therapy scenes, which exist in sharp relief, Ian’s scenes lack definition. When the ending arrives, with its puzzling tip-o’-the-tweed-hat toward J-horror, it doesn’t resound like it should.
Perhaps director Joy Zinoman senses the production’s imbalance, because she seems to have made an effort to correct for it. Unfortunately, that effort only succeeds in slowing the evening’s pace. Between scenes, we watch Ian putter morosely around his office, packing and unpacking his books while listening to plaintive ’70s soft rock. We’re meant, in these moments, to get a sense of his loneliness and maybe even his guilt. But because these interstitial scenes last so long (it seems like it takes him two, sometimes three, verses of an Eagles ballad to shelve his paperbacks), the only thing they do give us a sense of is his shitty CD collection.