Irish Ghosts and Leprechauns

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In this week after Halloween, it's fitting that we talk about ghost stories. Conor McPherson, the prolific Irish dramatist, is a master of modern ghost stories — his plays have featured apparitions, bloodsuckers, even Mephistopheles himself. And yet, there's no blood or gore in McPherson's plays — he's more interested in the guilt these spirits represent, not who they can kill.

The first McPherson play to reach Los Angeles was his one-man show, St. Nicholas, back in 1999, which featured Brian Cox as a theater critic who moonlights as a vampire. A delicious performance and play, McPherson's work has not been well presented in Southern California since. Ten years after St. Nicholas, the Fountain Theatre is reviving his 2004 play, Shining City. As a longtime McPherson follower, Shining City is the only one of his dramas to leave me cold. The story of a therapist, whose personal life is in serious flux, and his patient, a man suffering after his wife dies in a car crash, Shining City has all the right dramatic pieces—yet it just doesn't seem to add up.

I thought this was the fault of the Broadway staging I saw back in 2006, which starred Oliver Platt as John, the widower whose late-wife is haunting their Dublin home. As in so many L.A. McPherson productions, Platt's Broadway turn suffered from a less-then-credible Irish accent, and the usually dependable Robert Falls' direction also seemed unfocused.

Because of this disappointment, I was looking forward to the Fountain's current revival, which reunites the creative team from that theater's Exits and Entrances, one of the best local productions of the last decade. Here in Stephan Sachs' revival, Morlan Higgins plays John; and his performance surpasses Platt's by an Irish mile. Higgins is tortured, polite and genuinely scared. His discomfort is palpable, which allows McPherson's ghost story to cut a little deeper.

John's shrink, Ian, is played by William Dennis Hurley, who portrays the character as troubled but decent. Ian's drama is the center of this four-person play, and Hurley holds the stage with a brittle calmness, quietly suggesting the emotions swirling beneath the character's cool, analytic demeanor.

What prevents this revival from being a bona-fide success is both McPherson's text and the performance of Kerrie Blaisdell in the role of Ian's girlfriend. This part is a relatively small one, but she's the key to understanding Ian's desire to sooth John's anxieties, as well as his own. Sadly, Blaisdell is simply not up to the caliber of her two castmates. Her accent feels freshly learned, as do her lines. She lacks the casual authority that McPherson's loose, conversational style requires. It must also be said that McPherson's conversation did not sound any richer after a second viewing. His scripts for The Weir and The Seafarer still managed to shine despite much lesser productions here in Los Angeles; for once with McPherson, I fear that what ails Shining City isn't a matter of things lost in translation, but rather due to something missing in its formation.

jim_norton.jpgOr perhaps Shining City's problem is that it's one of McPherson's only plays that did not originally star actor Jim Norton. The 60-year old Norton is to Conor McPherson, what Robert DeNiro is to Scorsese. I was reminded of this last week when I saw Norton perform in the Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow. In this 1947 song-and-dance show, Norton plays an Irishman man not troubled by ghosts, but rather by a pesky leprechaun. He's delightful and while the show is admittedly hokey, this Broadway revival is a surprising treat. For musical lovers traveling east this holiday season, Norton and the large talented cast are a pot of gold waiting at the end of a red eye.

Finian's Rainbow continues on Broadway at the St. James Theatre; Shining City runs through December 19, at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley in Shining City. Photo: Ed Krieger