“Mystifyingly awful…unfathomably bad” | Fintan O’Toole demolishes OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, John Patrick Shanley’s new “Irish” play

God bless Fintan O’Toole.

The Irish Times theatre critic hails from another time and place. In the part of the world he calls home (Dublin), theatre is serious business. And reviewers don’t mince words. They don’t try to look on the bright side if a play is awful. They don’t engage in rambling “discussions”, they don’t wax lyrical about how wonderful it is that “at least we’re having the conversation!” in desperate search for something good to say about an awful play (while not actually having the balls to say that it’s awful). They don’t spend 12 paragraphs discoursing on the historical context of a play or the social patterns of Himalayan villages where sweaters like the one worn in the play are woven – and then somehow fail to tell you that the play is awful.

Oh no. In the olde country, theatre critics wade in with flak jackets and artillery from word 1. They get RIGHT TO IT. In Fintan’s world, talking about everything else under the sun but failing to tell the audience that a play is awful (a style which increasingly seems to define American theatre journalism outside the major culture centers) is a dereliction of duty. And you’ll never see him do that.

That’s how it has to be in a theatre culture. The audience is in a hurry, they need to know what’s happening and what’s good. “What is worth my time and money?” the audience asks. Because they go to the theatre a lot, and they don’t have the time to see everything. They only want to see the good stuff. In a world of limited time and money, carefully avoiding the landmines is of paramount importance. Theatre critics see bad shows and take one for the team because that’s their job. Audience members depend on critics to share horror stories and tales of suffering – so that they (the audience) can avoid suffering. Never in a million years are you going to find a Fintan O’Toole review that tiptoes ’round the tulips of a bad play, waxes warmly about the “fascinating historical context!” the play operates in, and fails to disclose that the play is shite. It is not O’Toole’s goal to “encourage a wonderful conversation!” about a bad play by getting as many people as possible to go see it. That’s what boosterism does. Fintan’s job is to give his audience the maximum possible advance warning that a play is not worth their time – so they can avoid it and instead get to one that is.

The audience wants to hear these calls. They depend on them. They want to hear about what is unforgettably good. And of course, they also need to hear about what’s “unfathomably bad”, the coverage of which becomes its own blood sport. On the morning after a big premiere in Dublin, citizens all over the country tune in with a kind of morbid glee (except for those involved in the production – for them the operating emotion is closer to raw terror) to the Irish Times web site to find out what O’Toole has to say about it. Did it measure up? O, the horror!

If you think Ben Brantley has monolithic power – forget about it. O’Toole is also a leading intellectual and dissident activist on the side. Every single person in Ireland knows who Fintan O’Toole is. And what he says matters.

And when an Irish play strays across the Atlantic to New York or (god forbid) opens there first? O’Toole will materialize as if from the cloud to catch it, render judgement, and begone. His legendary pan of Martin McDonagh’s inept 2010 return to Broadway, A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, may have singlehandedly contributed to a measurable loss of Irish GNP the morning it was published as folks sat at their machines back home reading and rereading (with delight, no doubt) how it all went so very, very wrong for dear Martin. In it O’Toole basically says: “Martin. Look. Sometimes you need a failure this big, this spectacular, this F*CKING APOCALYPTIC to get you back to founding principles.”

McDonagh hasn’t written another play since.

Anyway, given O’Toole’s eminent position within the Irish theatre criticism wing, and his geographical proximity to New York (he’s teaching at Princeton this year), it was not a question of if but WHEN the Irish Times would deploy their stateside sleeper cell theatre crit hit team to lay waste what is quite possibly one of the most irresistible and fruitful targets he has ever had the pleasure of locking on: the clear and present danger (to sane theatre-going) of John Patrick Shanley’s ludicrously bad, completely incomprehensible, historically oblivious “Irish” play, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR.

One thing you can be sure about: Irish eyes are smiling back home…

Thank you, Fintan.

Warning: There is not a single line of feel good boosterism in this review.
Warning: There is not a single line of feel good boosterism in this review.

Archive of review:

Culture Shock: ‘Outside Mullingar’, and beyond the edge of awfulness

All the hokum that had been happily discarded became, in Martin McDonagh’s hands, a workable proposition again. It didn’t occur to me that an intelligent American dramatist such as John Patrick Shanley might look at those plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation.

Fintan O’Toole

Feb 22, 2014

When plays are bad, their badness is usually easy to explain. Occasionally, though, there is a play whose woefulness demands a whole new theory. John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar , currently on Broadway, is mystifyingly awful. The obvious explanation, that Shanley can’t write, doesn’t get us very far. He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt , and an Oscar for Moonstruck . Neither is especially to my taste, but they are at worst highly competent and professional. They don’t prepare you for the moments in Outside Mullingar when you find yourself shaking your head in abject, surrendered, uncomprehending disbelief.

After much reflection, my theory about Outside Mullingar is what we might call the McDonagh Effect. Martin McDonagh took the ramshackle old Irish naturalistic play, with its odd mix of kitchen comedy and 19th-century melodrama, and made it look both easy and viable. All the old hokum that had been happily discarded became, in his hands, a workable proposition again. If you were Irish, of course, it was also obvious that his was a postmodern version of Irish hokum, utterly self-aware, drenched in irony, deliberately anachronistic and brilliantly deployed to manipulate an audience’s expectations.

It didn’t occur to me, at least, that an intelligent American dramatist might look at those McDonagh plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation. That it would be possible to think, Great, the Abbey play of the 1940s is up for grabs again – and to think this in all innocence, with no hint of malicious intent. The only way I can explain Outside Mullingar is to assume that poor Shanley was misled in this way. Even this doesn’t explain why nobody, especially the Irish people involved in the production, had a quiet word to put him right.

Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as “recently”: we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, “Sure, we’re good with our fists, no surprise there.” But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.

If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you’d come up with the bones of Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you’d have to have mistaken McDonagh’s dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.

In Outside Mullingar , we begin in Tony’s kitchen after the funeral of his nearest neighbour. We quickly establish three things. Tony is thinking of cutting his son, Anthony (played by Brían F O’Byrne), out of his will and leaving the farm to a Yankee nephew. The Reillys have been in dispute with the neighbour about a right of way. (The term “land-grabbing” is, I’m afraid, inevitable.) And the disputed land has passed to the neighbour’s daughter, the fiery Rosemary Muldoon (played by Debra Messing – Grace from Will & Grace ).

I would normally be careful about revealing how it all works out, but in this case it will hardly surprise readers that the resolution will involve two elements: (a) a deathbed scene of more than usually revolting sentimentality in which Tony makes it all right with Anthony; and (b) Anthony and Rosemary finally getting around to wearing the face off each other.

All of this would be weird in itself, especially as the pastiche of midcentury Irish drama is always slightly off-kilter. Shanley’s ear for Irish speech – he has cousins outside Mullingar – is not well enough tuned to avoid having people “go to church” or “pass on”. Messing’s Rosemary tries so hard at an Irish accent that her voice ends up drowning in the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that her mother is played by Dearbhla Molloy, whose precise characterisation makes you wonder where her daughter came from.

But what makes the whole thing almost unfathomably bad is that Shanley has some vague sense that McDonagh’s plays do something more. Hence we have rain falling outside the cottage window as in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the casting of O’Byrne from that same production. Rosemary has elements of Slippy Helen from The Cripple of Inishmaan , and her resentment of Anthony goes back to a McDonaghesque childish slight. Worst of all, Anthony’s big revelation is an unintended parody of the way McDonagh inserts oddities and nonsequiturs. He explains that he has stayed away from Rosemary all these years because “I think I’m a bee”. This is not a joke or a metaphor: he thinks he’s a bee. I tried to convince myself that I was an ice-cube so I could melt into the ground in embarrassment.