Theater Review: A Shining City on the Yawning Heights

By Bill Marx

Shining City, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Robert Falls. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, through April 6 at the Boston University Theatre.

John Judd and Jay Whittaker gas on about a pesky ghost

At their best, ghost stories frolic in the freedom of the imagination: the writer generates his or her delicious shocks by rubbing the supernatural and the psychological together. Unfortunately, Irish playwright Conor McPherson could care less about inducing spooky electricity in the ironically (and mysteriously) titled Shining City. Aside from a rabbit-out-of-a-hat climax designed to jolt dozy audiences awake, the script is ninety minutes of dull chatter, an exploration of guilt too mired in therapeutic cliches to inject any pizazz into its poltergeist or its pair of haunted characters.

Even in the adept hands of Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, the script remains tidily diaphanous: the scariest thing about Shining City is its critical reception. Some reviewers love it, even calling it a masterpiece.

Known for crafting monologues that spotlight, at indulgent length, male ennui (St. Nicholas, The Weir), McPherson sets the drama’s inaction in a dangerous place for a playwright long on yak and short on conflict – a therapist’s office in a seedy part of Dublin. TV’s In Treatment explores how riveting the power plays triggered by ‘the talking cure’ can be, but McPherson will have none of that approach’s low ball energy or voyeuristic panache. Hey, this is contemporary theater – Tony-nominated variety – whose patrons pay for tastefully prosaic visions of the couch as a site for the expensive expiation of discontent. Shining City almost made me nostalgic for the Gothic hysterics of Agnes of God – for anything but McPherson’s carefully calibrated display of the agonies of the circumscribed Id.

Bill Marx

Instead of Dr. Phil, McPherson serves up Ian, a highly repressed and troubled rookie therapist – he’s an ex-priest with lots of issues – who ministers to the visions of John, a middle-aged patient who sees the ghost of his wife. The latter is given long speeches during which the fine actor John Judd struggles to inject some emotional juice into a predicable roll call of guilt, desire, and yearning for something more in life. A good portion of the play ends up dealing with Ian’s desire for something more in life, his rebellious dreams hemmed in by his demanding girlfriend, a child, and his numbing piles of guilt. McPherson whips up back-story for each of the characters, but the result ends up piling up superficiality rather than creating dramatic depth. As Ian, Jay Whittaker doesn’t do much to suggest that there are flickers of life underneath the character’s stiff, self-punishing carapace.

McPherson’s major characters are so disembodied that the most shocking moments for me in Shining City did not revolve around the ghost sightings. It is when Ian, in a rare moment of anger, pushes his girlfriend. The act reminded me that there were physical bodies on stage not talking machines made up of neurotic symptoms for our inspection.

Note how often In Treatment focuses on close ups between doctor and patient – they can’t take their eyes off each other because they need each other; they are locked in a mutual battle to figure each other out, to manipulate what may be a friend or a foe. For much of McPherson’s play John looks out at the audience and confesses his sins. Ian rarely responds to what he hears from John — it is as if the patient came in for a psychic lube job. Don’t worry about transference, just jump up on the Freudian lift and yammer your delusions away.

Santo Loquasto’s elegant Victorian office set cocoons the proceedings in a cavernous realism that only emphasizes the flimsiness of McPherson’s ghost of a ghost story.

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