Irish playwright Conor McPherson said he is quite pleased with Robert Falls’s Broadway staging of his Dublin-set drama, “Shining City.”
The celebrated 34-year-old author, who previously directed a production of the play in London, said he opted to hand over the reins to an American director after he learned union rules for actors in the United States would prevent him from bringing over his original cast for the Broadway version. The result is, in his own words, a “strong, consistent production” with “no weak link.”
McPherson told the Echo in a phone interview: “I think it has worked out for the best because an American director has been able to deliver the play for an American audience. His instincts of what an American audience needs to understand the story are different from my instincts.
“So, it’s great. It’s like a translation in a funny way. His production is very much like an American production. It’s very punchy. It’s very vivid, whereas I like things to be more messy and more weird in a funny way,” he said.
Praising Falls for his ability to clearly convey to the audience the events of the play and lauding the four-person cast for bringing his Irish characters to life, McPherson compared his previous version of the show and the new incarnation of “Shining City” to listening to music played on an old, boxy piano and then listening to it played on a beautiful grand piano.
“When you’ve got great actors up there on Broadway, which is kind of like the pinnacle of where you can be, it really sings,” he added. “It’s a privilege to see it work like that.”
The man who wrote the smash hit play “The Weir,” as well as the hilarious Irish film, “I Went Down,” said he wasn’t troubled much by the fact the U.S. debut of his play was delayed several months while the new director and cast were hired.
“It’s always difficult when you do a show in, say, London or Dublin and you want to bring it to New York because there are so many obstacles. The actors’ union here doesn’t want foreign actors coming to perform in plays they feel, quite rightly, their members can do as well,” he explained. “But those delays, I think, that’s kind of par for the course in show business. It’s very rare that something runs very smoothly. It’s a very strange and difficult business. That it’s here at all is fantastic.”
Set in modern-day Dublin, “Shining City” is a drama about John, a grieving widower (Oliver Platt) who seeks help in dealing with his feelings of loss and regret from an inexperienced therapist and former priest called Ian (Brian F. O’Byrne). John reveals in their sessions how he failed his wife Mari in life and believes she is haunting his house after her car-crash death, Ian begins to see parallels to his own life, which is also fraught with disappointment, fear and longing. Martha Plimpton plays Neasa, Ian’s estranged girlfriend and the mother of his new-born baby, while Peter Scanavino plays Laurence, a destitute stranger who helps Ian sort out some of his issues one night.
Although the play deftly traverses numerous themes, among them isolation, remorse, failure, communication, confusion, faith and love, McPherson said he sees one in particular that binds the four characters’ storylines.
“The one theme is that the human condition is one of total ignorance,” he offered. “That anybody who is getting along OK in life is kind of lucky in a way, really. If you can cope along the way, you’re doing quite well. It’s to do with the borders of what we know and the limits of what we know. What we do know is so tiny and I suppose the whole play is to do with that, really.”
Insisting he doesn’t obsess over the mysteries of the universe, McPherson confessed he does spend some time thinking about them and wondering why more people around him aren’t as contemplative.
“I suppose I do ponder that,” he said. “Not in a way that I am like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t live unless I figure out the universe,’ but in a way, it’s interesting how people live their lives in a happy kind of ignorance. I think you have to or else you couldn’t function. But I always think if everyone in the world could kind of admit what it is we don’t know, the world would be a better place.”
McPherson said he thinks there is so much conflict in the world because people hold fast to their opinions, instead of keeping their minds open to new ideas.
“Human beings are animals who can speak and that’s all we are,” he remarked. “But, yet, because we can speak and think, we seem to think in some we have some contact with God, which is just such a crazy notion, in my opinion, whereas, in fact, we really are just a tiny, little speck of dust in this absolutely massive void about which we just don’t know anything. They do actually say that in the play right at the end. So, for me, those things are so interesting; it’s interesting not only that we don’t know anything, but it’s so interesting that human beings walk around like they know everything. It’s comedy and tragedy at the same time.”
Asked to disclose where the idea for this particular play came from, the award-winning scribe said he really doesn’t know where any of his ideas come from, but he added they start as feelings and develop from there.
“I always just let an idea bake in my head like a cake for a long time and then when it’s kind of complete and I can more or less see the whole thing, then I start to write it,” he explained. “I’m not one of those people who write and don’t know where it’s going.”
Of course, he said, the play continues to evolve even after he thinks he has finished writing it.
“I always change it [after the actors are hired]” he said. “If you get an actor who walks on stage and has a certain vibration, and, in a way, if they are vibrating what you were about to have them say, you don’t need to have them say it. So, I will cut a lot off. I’m always trying to cut my plays down, but, yeah, every production that I do, I always change and tailor it to the actors and, also, you have to trust actors’ suggestions. If something is not working or they are not feeling it, I’m always happy to just get rid of it.”
He said the actors’ self-confidence is more important that having them utter the dramatist’s every last word.
Noting how the majority of works currently staged on Broadway are either transplants from London or Dublin or adaptations of popular films, McPherson said he is appalled by how hard it is for U.S. theater writers to get their original work produced.
“My heart goes out to American playwrights. There are never as many American plays on Broadway as there are Irish plays or British plays,” he pointed out. “[Producers] shop around for hits outside rather than trying to develop an American voice. It’s disgraceful, really, but at the same time, that’s what money does. It’s cruel.”
McPherson said he thinks the roots of this trend are found in the lack of government funding for the arts in the United States, which means profit-minded show backers are reluctant to risk their own money on untried material.
“It’s much cheaper for them to shop around in London where there is state subsidy for the arts, so there is more experimental work and more chances being taken, so there is more original work going on rather than try to develop a work here that nobody has seen,” he said, adding that art in America suffers because of the government’s apparent belief it is not important enough to finance, meaning the work needs to be able to sustain itself.
“Where I come from, politically, it’s different,” he said. “People think the arts are important to society and to a civilization and risks must be taken in art and it’s worth subsidizing because it helps society to function.”
McPherson’s next project is “The Seafarer,” a contemporary Dublin drama about the devil coming to play cards for somebody’s soul on Christmas Eve. It is expected to premiere this September at London’s National Theatre with McPherson directing.