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picture - Port AuthorityTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published May 30, 2008


Port Authority

now playing Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company

through June 15


Three men arrive in the waiting room of a spectral terminal station, about to embark, it would seem, on a journey. Ninety intermissionless minutes later, it is clear that they are not going anywhere. They have already returned from wherever it was they were planning to go. And they have taken us with them on their trips. In Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, three generations of Dublin storytellers relate their tales to us in sections, not really intersecting or overlapping, but which, taken together, cut across a whole spectrum of human endeavor. What ultimately connects them is the sense that each generation’s experience is both different and the same.


It is becoming clearer with each new play to reach our shores that a multitude of contemporary Irish dramatists are less concerned with the conventional trappings of drama than they are with reinventing the ancient art of storytelling, and it seems pointless to ask if that is enough to create a satisfying experience in the theater when, no matter how limited the enchantment may seem, one is so enchanted by the stories themselves and by the glorious bursts of language which inform them. McPherson’s most recent plays, Shining City and The Seafarer, don’t necessarily yield their subject matters easily, but they do finally evoke a fascinating access into the elusive ways of the heart. I can’t say that Port Authority digs as deep a trench as these others, or that it is as much a play, but, here and there, when its truths lay exposed, it speaks with lucidity about the boundless limits of youth and the limitations created by so much freedom, the illusions of middle age when the class barriers one breaks through become the bars of a private prison, the need that age has for moral recapitulation. These are not small matters and it should come as no surprise that they are arrived at with some difficulty.


Is it worth the work one has to go through to get to the same place that McPherson’s characters reach? That depends on the production the play receives and that is where the Atlantic Theater Company has succeeded brilliantly. Its director, Henry Wishcamper, understands that what is required is starkness and fluidity. Matthew Richards lights the play so that what is illuminated are the shifts in emotional nuance and not merely the passing of time. And Takeshi Kata’s bone-simple set – a public bench in a waiting room, surrounded by the theater’s brick walls – is as plain as poetry.


And, finally, it comes down to the actors, and a better cast could not have been assembled. As the youth, John Gallagher, Jr. subtly conveys both diffidence and adventurousness, sometimes in conflict with each other, sometimes in absolute harmony. As the old man remembering a shameful but invigorating encounter with a friend’s wife, Jim Norton, who has become a quintessential interpreter of McPherson’s art, is simultaneously haunted and haunting, mingled together with an odd sense of the cheeriness that age brings to melancholy. And, best of all, perhaps because his story is the most sharply defined of the three, Brian d’Arcy James offers a superbly calibrated portrait of man who has been deluding himself into thinking that he can escape the class he has been born into. This character, Dermot, deserves a play of his own, and d’Arcy James’ performance almost provides one.


Port Authority has style and substance to spare, but, if his more recent plays didn’t progress, as they did, into more exciting theatrical territory, it might be said of this work that there is a kind of dead end to the eccentricities of mere storytelling. This production, fortunately, moves eloquently beyond eccentricity.


harveyperr @


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