The New Stage Collectivistas wrapped up their 2007-08 season with a pair of seriously satisfying theatrical experiences — first Tracy Letts' Bug and then Jerry Springer: The Opera, both contenders for 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEA).
Now New Stage has come roaring back, opening its eight-play 2008-09 season with another dazzler, the regional premiere of Conor McPherson's 2006 Tony nominee, Shining City. Prediction: When CEA ballots are assembled next July, this show likely will be in the running for "outstanding local premiere" and Randy Lee Bailey certainly will be nominated for his outstanding performance.
What a feast for the ear McPherson makes of this 110-minute, no-intermission script — a sort-of mystery, sort-of multiple character study, sort-of psychological striptease. He crafts mesmerizing poetry out of common nouns, punchy verbs and shattered sentences that stop, start over, stutter and break apart to reveal depths of mysterious meaning and threatening emotion.
If you inventoried the script's vocabulary, you'd likely find a smaller total number of different words than other modern playwrights, even Mamet and Pinter. Shakespeare expanded the English language; McPherson shrinks it. He uses the fewest and most common of words possible, setting aside Irish vernacular and wringing an astonishing intensity of meaning.
And what a magnetized, mesmerizing event guest director Ed Cohen has made of the production for New Stage. He keeps the pace deceptively placid and the movement deceptively simple. But you simply can't look away from it.
Like many contemporary playwrights, McPherson eschews neatness and completeness in his plotting and character structure. Well-crafted plot and the fully described background aren't for him.
Shining City has little in the way of conventional exposition about who the characters are and what they're up to. They just start talking, usually in the middle of something, leaving it to the audience to gather and combine half-spoken facts and passing nuances into comprehension. This isn't neglectful writing; it's a spellbinding sort of high art.
We're in McPherson's contemporary Dublin. Lights fade up. Psychologist Ian (Dan Doerger) awaits a patient. He's just setting out on a career as a therapist.
Upstage center there's an ordinary window. Ian frequently stands there, gazing out through the slats of a Venetian window shade. One side of the shade is hiked up higher than the other at the bottom. Throughout multiple therapy sessions, Ian never adjusts the crooked shade.
Hold that image. It symbolizes, perhaps even explains some of the tale's lingering mysteries.
Patient John (Bailey) arrives. He might be the first patient to brave the malfunctioning doorbell and climb the several flights of stairs to Ian's tacky, make-do office. John wishes to be exorcised of apparitions of his late wife who died in a horrendous traffic accident.
John has one long speech that demonstrates both the power of playwright McPherson's storytelling technique and actor Bailey's mastery of it. In a later scene, Bailey remains in control of a single speech that runs on for nearly 30 minutes.
Neasa (Kelly Mengelkoch), Ian's girlfriend and mother of his child, arrives to unload the fears and frustrations that proceed from their fraying relationship. Things don't go well for either of them. Mengelkoch's adroit, empathic performance makes Neasa pitiless in her attacks and pitiful in her failures.
There are more, longer, revelatory sessions with John, then Ian does something that's either crucial to his character or entirely unaccountable: He picks up and pays, then declines the services of rent boy Laurence. The boy is played with a fine mix of vigor and ennui by Cary Davenport, who recently scored well in several very different roles at Northern Kentucky University.
Patient John leaves his final session, thanking Ian for his help, moving on in a new relationship, seemingly at peace with himself — just as the play appears to be at peace with itself and settling toward a quiet resolution. Then McPherson springs an unsettling surprise upon Ian and the audience as the stage lights die away.
House lights will brighten for the audience. It's unclear whether things will brighten up again for Ian.
All the performances are strong and well faceted. The players handle well the leaps and pauses, the sudden left turns in McPherson's speeches dialogue. But Bailey dominates the action as John, partly with his power as a performer, partly because of the extended speeches over which he exercises masterful control, demanding attention, changing cadence, building toward climaxes, revealing character.
John's words and Bailey's performance recall McPherson's compelling storytelling works produced by other Cincinnati companies — Know Theatre's 2004 staging of The Good Thief (featuring a persuasive performance by Nick Rose at Mount Adams Bar and Grill) and Cincinnati Shakespeare's production of The Weir back in 2000. So, yeah, Shining City dazzles.
(Note: Another McPherson script will be onstage locally later this fall, when Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati presents The Seafarer in October.
SHINING CITY, presented by New Stage Collective, continues through Sept. 21. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.