By Joseph Hurley
THE WEIR, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Ian Rickson. Featuring Kieran Ahern, Brendan Coyle, Dermot Crowley, Michelle Fairley and Jim Norton. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC.
Playwright Conor McPherson has pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of turning the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre into a kind of scout camp bonfire around which his spellbound audience listens in rapt silence as an ensemble of five sterling actors regale each other with a string of fascinating ghost stories. The playwright, a 27-year-old Dubliner, supplies everything but the marshmallows.
"The Weir," the play that is the occasion for all that tale-spinning, is vastly more expert and much deeper than merely a skillful collection of midnight chillers, no matter how imaginatively delivered. It is, to put matters baldly, the finest play by an Irish dramatist to reach New York in several seasons, certainly since Brian Friel’s "Dancing at Lughnasa" made its local debut.
In addition, although McPherson’s play, located in what the author slyly identifies as "a small bar in a rural part of Ireland, Northwest Leitrim or Sligo," has its quotient of frightening moments, it is far more valid as a work of theater than even the best example of the thriller genre.
The youthful writer, admired here as the author of "plays" which were actually monologues like "St. Nicholas," a success at Primary Stages last season, with Britain’s Brian Cox as its star, and "Rum and Vodka," which played the 2nd Annual New York International Fringe Festival last summer, with Dublin-born actor John O’Callaghan, has here and there been accused of being unable to cope with more than one performer at a time.
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"The Weir," arriving in New York in a wonderful production staged by Ian Rickson, the recently installed artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre, which commissioned the play, should put an end to such baseless speculation once and for all. What McPherson has accomplished here is a skillfully integrated five-actor character study so deftly written that, in the hands of the right actors and the proper director, the rare goal of an ensemble performance, in a nearly Chekhovian sense, is the almost unavoidable result, as is indubitably the case in this instance.
The play that "The Weir" might bring to mind is Harold Pinter’s much-admired success of a couple of decades ago "The Homecoming," in which a somewhat enigmatic female character is introduced into a closed world that had been, until her arrival, exclusively male.
The major differences between "The Weir" and "The Homecoming" lie in the areas of McPherson’s earnestness and compassion, as opposed to Pinter’s habitual, admittedly skillful and intriguing, game-playing.
The production’s program describes a weir as "a dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow, or an enclosure of stakes, etc., set in a stream as a trap for fish." The author may or may not draw a parallel between trapped fish and the five essentially isolated individuals who find themselves swapping stories in that lonely, underpatronized bar in the remote Irish countryside.
Often, if a writer has a significant, personal voice, it declares itself within the first half-dozen or so lines of dialogue. In the case of McPherson and "The Weir," you know you’re on solid ground before anyone actually speaks a word.
The bar, as designed by R’ Smith, feels precisely right, and when the first actor, veteran Dublin star Jim Norton, appears, everything he does sets the play perfectly in motion, suggesting that this middle-aged man is a "regular," not the owner, as he tries to draw a Guinness, only to be confronted with a squeakingly defective tap, and then settles for its battled equivalent, dropping a few coins into the nearby cash drawer.
When Norton’s dapper bachelor, Jack, is joined by the publican, Brendan, rendered with remarkable grace and subtlety by Brendan Coyle, it becomes immediately clear that the men are undertaking a kind of formation dance they perform most nights of their life, and when they receive a third bachelor, Jim, the custodian of his aged mother, the pattern of their shared existence takes crystalline shape.
What separates this particular night from all others is the arrival of Valerie, a young stranger who, for reasons that eventually became clear, has rented an aged, unoccupied house from a real estate agent, Finbar, who brings her to the dismal bar to induct her into the odd "community" he shares with the other three friends, if they can fairly be termed friends.
At stake is the imminent arrival of a herd of German tourists, deeply unwelcome, apart from the money they bring to the area in the course of their "low rent" vacations. Also on the minds of the regulars is the issue of the disposal of a high nearby field. Is it too windy for the tents of tourists? Is the climb too steep and difficult for a herd of cattle or even a flock of sheep to negotiate?
The concerns of this quintet of isolates are like the materials with which playwright McPherson is working, seemingly small but intensely specific, and, ultimately, unusually resonant, to the point of being, at the end of "The Weir" — which plays out in real time of just under two hours, and has no intermission — unforgettable.
Kieran Ahern’s motherbound Jim, reticent and insecure by nature, is an eloquent portrait of a man who seems embarrassed by the mere act of occupying space, while Dermot Crowley, as the entrepreneurial Finbar, obviously considers himself more fully able to deal with the world than any of his three male companions. In Crowley’s carefully calibrated performance, his insecurities soon begin to bleed through his bravura.
In this beautifully shared effort, the Valerie of Michelle Fairley has to occupy a slightly singular position, if for no other real reason other than her sex and her status as the sole outsider. With her perfect posture and the quality of serene stillness she seems to exude, Fairley might suggest a young, Irish version of the Diana Rigg of a decade or so ago.
Director Rickson has been quoted in interviews as saying that his goal was to be invisible as he guided the play to performance level, a remarkable statement in a theater in which, all too often, directors seem to want to loom like giants between the text and the audience.
However he achieved it, Rickson’s result in "The Weir"
is an environment in which a quintet of highly skilled actors are somehow able to give a communal performance that calls up images of chamber music.
In their curtain calls, actors Norton, Coyle Ahern, Crowley and Fairley stand close, elbow to elbow, and bow from the waist, almost like a little row of toy soldiers. At first, the bow looks a touch mechanical, a bit strange. And then it seems entirely fitting for a group of beautifully matched actors who have given as close to a single performance as we’re ever likely to witness.
Meanwhile, Conor McPherson, who wrote the recent film "I Went Down," and who will be represented later on this season off-Broadway by a Primary Stages production of an earlier play, "The Lime Tree Bower," has, with "The Weir," staked an extremely solid claim to being, at least potentially, the finest Irish writer for the theater to come along since Brian Friel arrived with "Philadelphia, Here I Come" on Feb. 16, 1966.
And how welcome he is.