When the drizzle outside is as continuous as the chatter inside, you can be sure the play you’re watching is set in Ireland.
Such is the case in John Patrick Shanley’s gentle dramatic comedy “Outside Mullingar,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in a production directed by Geffen artistic director Randall Arney. An audience charmer peddling romantic hokum, the play is satisfying despite being scarcely credible and touchingly sweet even when flagrantly sentimental.
In a violent, chaotic and rapidly changing world there is a hunger for happy endings, and you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the opening-night audience — a sound I interpreted as saying, “Oh, thank God, we’re not going to be raked over the coals tonight!”
Remember when Cher slapped Nicolas Cage twice and screamed “Snap out of it!” after he confessed his love in “Moonstruck”? Shanley won an Oscar for that screenplay, and Cher’s line might have earned him movie immortality along with that gold statuette.
He’s tilling the same thematic ground in “Outsider Mullingar” but in an Irish context that, as a New York-born Irish American, he’s avoided until now. It’s hard to get the patter of a people down exactly when you’re not always living among them, but Shanley does a decent job of replicating the Irish we know and love from our stages.
The Reillys have invited Aoife Muldoon (Robin Pearson Rose) and her obstinately single daughter, Rosemary (Jessica Collins), to the house after the funeral of Aoife’s husband. There’s a fair amount of squabbling, but the play doesn’t have McDonagh’s scabrous wit or homicidal resentment.
The bark of Shanley’s weekly churchgoing crew is worse than its bite. Tony threatens to disinherit his hardworking son who refuses to marry and sire an heir for the family’s long-held farm, but there’s no doubt that the two are devoted to each other. Aoife won’t even consider selling back the small parcel of land her husband purchased when Tony needed money (the property has since been deeded to Rosemary), but these old neighbors have too much in common to let this matter estrange them.
This being a romance, the focus is naturally on Anthony and Rosemary’s relationship, which turns out to be an exceedingly tough knot to untangle. No longer young, they are nonetheless deficient in amorous experience.
Rosemary apparently hasn’t forgiven Anthony for knocking her to the ground when he was 13 and she was 6. She’d rather smoke in the rain than step into the house, but when she learns that Anthony’s father is considering leaving the farm to a nephew in America, she raises a ruckus until the old man comes to his senses.
Yes, she loves him with all her soul. But this inheritance business is easier to sort out than whatever is keeping Anthony from recognizing that his destiny lies with Rosemary, who has fended off other suitors in the hope that he might one day choose her. She wonders whether he might be gay or seriously depressed or possibly impotent. But the truth when it emerges — and it’s a doozy — isn’t really the issue.
The farfetched nature of Anthony’s obstacle only clarifies that to be loved wholly one must expose that part of oneself one is most ashamed of. Anthony, spurned after revealing himself to a youthful sweetheart, has resigned himself to a life of lonely drudgery. He is determined to keep his secret his own, but Rosemary has time, persistence and a fierce temper on her side.
I can vouch that it is possible to cheer characters on to a big-kiss finish line even though you don’t buy much of anything in their all-too-neatly plotted race. Two things help: Shanley’s gracious humor (with its merry acceptance of death and decay) and the affectionate portraits created by Arney’s four-person cast.
Rose’s Aoife and Conroy’s Tony are most naturally at home in this milieu. Both have suffered the loss of a dearly beloved spouse, and both know that their time on Earth is limited. “I don’t mind except to desert Rosemary and leave her orphaned altogether,” says Aoife, a sentiment Tony could echo about Anthony.
Donohue, who was in the ensemble for the Geffen production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive,” does Irish melancholy extremely well. His performance might profit from the addition of a few more varied notes — the downtrodden nature of the character is a tad monotonous — but there’s something attractive about Anthony’s somber goodness.
Collins carefully unwinds Rosemary’s bitterness to show us the tender, fanatic heart underneath. The love she has for Anthony is a fact as undeniable as the green landscape, but the question of whether Anthony will acknowledge it or his own feelings is what keeps us all in suspense.
Yes, this drama is a throwback, an old-fashioned story that might have delighted audiences at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre 75 years ago. (The time-consuming scene changes for Arney’s fully furnished production only add to the retro flavor.)
I may have rolled my eyes on a couple of occasions. But romance never goes out of style, and if ever there were a time when we could use a laugh and a happy cry it’s right now. Shanley’s play will warm your holidays.
Follow me on Twitter @CharlesMcNulty
Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20.
Tickets: $32 to $82 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes