Theater Review: A Play in Need of Polish

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Jon Lovitz once did a Saturday Night Live sketch called Portrait of the Artist in which he played Pablo Picasso sitting at an outdoor café. He'd sneeze, throw his mucusy tissue to the ground and waiters would dive for it. There's your kid's college fund! he exclaimed, or something like that. Like most SNL sketches, the concept quickly went from inspired to insipid, but it did have an underlying message: artist-worshipparticularly when the artist is muddling, as all great artists do, through periods of second-rate workdemeans both art and artist.

Shining City is Conor McPherson's new dramedya play equally comic, dramatic and without anything remotely sitcom about it. However, if the play had been written by anyone but McPherson, whose other works have been well-received in New York (The Weir on Broadway; The Good Thief, Dublin Carol and This Lime Tree Bower Off-Broadway), I'm convinced the playwright would have received a generous, effusively encouraging rejection letter. In a Broadway season not lacking for work by terrific contemporary Irish dramatistsMartin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore; the revival of Brian Friel's Faith HealerShining City is both the best acted and least understandable. If you discount the ending (I won't give it away), you wonder why it was produced at all. And why, indeed, was it written?

This is a double-edged sword. If it hadn't been produced, we'd be deprived of seeing four actors do mesmerizing work. Oliver Platt plays John, a Dublin businessman whose therapy sessions with Ian, played by Brian F. O'Byrne, are spent working through John's belief that he's seen the ghost of his wife, Mari, who died in a car crash. Ian has dramas of his own: Here, he breaks up with Neasa, the mother of his child, played by Martha Plimpton; there, he picks up Laurence, a male hustler, played by Peter Scanavino. In between, there's a therapy scene in which Platt delivers a monologue of astonishing length and admirable complexity in which John essentially works through his guilt. As the 90-minute one-act proceeds, what you first think is principally driving the playdid John see his wife's ghost or not?slowly fades; in truth, the play is about how John gets better as Ian, a former priest, continues to struggle internally.

Meanwhile, if Shining City hadn't been produced, we'd also be deprived of bewilderment. Did McPherson really write it for that final moment, that perfectly obvious coup d'theatre? (Figured it out yet?) It's not that he shouldn't have written itall great artists, and I think that McPherson is one, do tons of aesthetic schlepping to reach their artistic Mt. Everest. But the play neither tells nor teaches much. It's one of those situations in which spectacular actors toil for minor art.

Shining City reminded me of the Lovitz sketchthe idea that just because an artist does a doodle, that doesn't make it art. How exciting to see McPherson take new steps on the greatness path; how thrilling to see actors give such exquisitely detailed performances. Yet it doesn't make Shining City McPherson's Guernica.

Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200; $26-$80.

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