The late, great screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (“Cabaret”) once described the premise for all those Doris Day romantic comedies. She called it the DF, as in Delayed F***.
With “Outside Mullingar,” which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, John Patrick Shanley gives us the DK, as in Delayed Kiss. Shanley, an Oscar winner for his 1987 hit “Moonstruck,” is back in romantic comedy land with his new play, and if the boisterous laughter coming from the Friedman is any indication, he has struck gold again.
Substitute the streets of Brooklyn with the farmland of Ireland, as well as much less plot, and you arrive at “Outside Mullingar,” which performs at 95 minutes in this MTC production but has something less than 60 minutes of story. It’s a testament to Shanley’s skill as a writer that he maintains some semblance of suspense. Essentially, the DK is the second half of his tale. The first half is the DI, as in Delayed Inheritance.
Not since a Barry Fitzgerald movie has a land dispute been so central to a story. As the curtain goes up on “Outside Mullingar,” it appears that the middle-aged bachelor named Anthony Reilly (Brian F. O’Byrne) has no idea that the family farm where he’s lived and worked his entire life could well be sold by his father (Peter Maloney giving a splendid Barry Fitzgerald impersonation) to some cousin living in America. This seems to be news to the son even though he’s lived with his father for the last 42 years.
Shanley keeps this Delayed Inheritance going for about half his play, all the while plotting his Delayed Kiss, which involves a beautiful neighbor woman who (surprise) owns the right-of-way to the Maloney farm. Maureen O’Hara would have played her in those aforementioned Barry Fitzgerald movies, but probably not gone the deglammed route taken by Debra Messing, who’s making her Broadway debut. We first see Rosemary smoking a pipe, a black stocking cap over her long red braided hair, her feet covered in knee-high plastic boots. You can almost smell the mud and manure.
Despite appearances, she is Anthony’s salvation in more ways than one, and once she has taken care of his rightful inheritance, Rosemary plots the kiss. It’s a plot three years in the making, if not much longer – since the time he pushed her into the dirt when they were both just kids.
Compared to Rosemary’s wait for Anthony, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen‘s wait for Godot a few blocks away at the Cort seems comparatively brief in theater time. Despite all the laughter from the Friedman audience, it’s difficult to tell if Messing is being strident and one-note in the long final scene, or if Shanley has simply failed to give much variety to her incessant yammering.
Far more the stage veteran, the supremely talented O’Byrne is oddly colorless here — until the final scene when he hesitatingly describes himself in tremulous voice as a “honey bee” and Rosemary as a “flower.” Somehow, as the way it is played here under Doug Hughes’s direction, Anthony comes off as a violet to Rosemary’s hornet. While many in the audience made it clear that they found this scene both hilarious and touching, others may applaud in relief at the Delayed Curtain.