Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ghost writer

Jay Whittaker haunts his office in Shining City. Production photos by Peter Wynn Thompson.

It's a commonplace lament in the theatrical world that this-or-that script "works better on the page than on the stage." But you'd be hard pressed to find a more intriguing example of this phenomenon than Conor McPherson's Shining City, now in its Boston premiere at the Huntington. For City almost perversely kicks away the props generally used to build and shape conflict: one lead character essentially monologues, while the other says almost nothing, and its scenes - which generally omit the events they discuss - are separated by weeks, or even months, of time. Indeed, the play seems all but opposed to a sense of rising action, much less structure - but almost by way of compensation, the script is impeccably structured in a literary sense. Upon reflection, one can see that almost every line, every bit of exposition, has been tied to its central revelation (which occurs in a shocking final image), but the question still lingers - has this been a drama, or an essay?

Yes, I know, before you say it - didn't Beckett, and other absurdists, dispense with "rising action" long ago? Well, yes - only Beckett's exploratory, philosophical themes were perfectly embodied by his elliptical "structure," such as it was. With McPherson, however, one senses a traditional narrative simply broken up into intriguing chunks - quite a different thing. And then there's the persistent impression that the playwright has told only half his tale - the curtain falls on a coup that actually shifts the story into higher gear rather than ending it (although perhaps McPherson feels that simply nailing down his tale to its essence provides enough of a "wrap").

Any critic is hamstrung in his or her analysis of the play, however, by the fact that so much turns on that final moment, and to discuss it openly may well ruin it, particularly McPherson, as is his wont, is trading in the enjoyably creepy tropes of the supernatural. The set-up is actually drawn from any number of modern chillers: an emotionally broken man (John Judd, at left) turns to a therapist (Jay Whittaker) because, he claims, he has begun seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife around the house. The therapist then begins drawing out the emotional material that could be causing these hallucinations. That is, of course, if they are hallucinations . . .

On such uncertainty many a pleasantly chilling cliffhanger, well, has hung - and make no mistake, McPherson has the old-fashioned chops of an Arthur Conan Doyle or M.R. James when it comes to the eerily suggestive; at many moments, Shining City (like its more accomplished cousin, The Seafarer) holds the audience bemusedly spellbound, as if we were once again at camp, shivering to goosebump-inducing tales around a crackling fire. McPherson also expertly conjures a very real, flesh-and-blood character to spin his spooky yarn - one given (with appropriate irony) a rude, earthy life here by John Judd, in a near-perfect performance that's a marvel of spontaneous timing and shifting mood.

Still, the play surrounding these uncanny flights of fancy - punctuated as they are by realistically Pinterian pauses - somehow dodges what we slowly sense should be its central concern. If the essence of therapy is "transference," in which the patient perceives his own complexes via his relationship to his therapist, then it's perhaps not giving away too much to say that McPherson (at right) has in mind to demonstrate a kind of "counter-transference" in Shining City - only he never actually dramatizes it. Instead he offers a subtle, and beautifully detailed, suggestion that all his characters (and, perhaps, all his audience too) are emotional ghosts, prevented from fully living their lives by complicated, unresolvable feelings, and of course that old bugbear, guilt over past sins. The poor fellow who's seeing shades is himself a kind of wanderer, driven out of his own home by fear; his therapist, meanwhile, is living out of his office, having left his girlfriend in the lurch with their baby; she, too, it turns out, now has no place of her own - everyone, in short, is haunting the "shining city" of Dublin, which may itself be a city of ghosts. And in such a bustling metropolis of lost souls, what's one more piece of itinerant ectoplasm? Or to put it another way, is a "ghost" any less "real" for being emotional rather than actual?

Or is a play itself something of a "ghost" if it never really engages these questions in an actual conflict? Some may feel that way after Shining City's sudden curtain - and wonder if, rather than a successful experiment in "dramatizing" therapy, the script actually represents a clever strategy for McPherson to leverage his well-known flair for monologue into a full-length play. Still others may simply feel satisfied by Judd's startling performance as the haunted patient - although perhaps less so by Whittaker's slightly-too-pinched turn as his would-be exorcist. The rest of the production is pleasingly subtle (a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, it's capably directed by the veteran Robert Falls) - although Santo Loquasto's soaring set, floating as it was in louring skies, seemed to me almost too obviously situated for ectoplasmic access. But then I suppose that's the whole idea.

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