Mellow, plump Jack (Michael Tezla) tells his story with the smiling warmth of a favorite uncle and the lonesome resignation of a terminal bachelor, drawing out accounts of the ghosts that haunt both his beloved Irish countryside and his Saharan romantic history. Seated in the weathered pub that's his second home, Jack holds court as a man who knows how to handle his liquor. He maintains a sober dignity after eight or nine rounds, and gently holds a tumbler on his knee with the nonchalance of someone completely free of spillage anxiety.
Jack is the most interesting barfly in Conor McPherson's five-person play--but standing out among three likable ciphers and an unconvincing blowhard (Mark Beninghofen's Finbar) is sort of like saying that Robin MacNeil was the most interesting host on the old MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. The Weir, directed by Peter Moore for Actors Theater of Minnesota, is set in a remote pub run by taciturn bachelor Brendan (Michael Egan) in Sligo County, a tourist destination on the northern tip of Ireland. It's the off-season during the play's "action," and the bar's only regulars are bachelor drinkers Jack and Jim (an easygoing Terry Hempleman). Though not quite rising to The Iceman Cometh's desperate "Who's Who of Dipsomania," this pair is luckless enough to require ample alcoholic anesthesia. Cocky hotel baron Finbar soon joins the party, bringing along his mistress, Valerie (Virginia Burke), who's up from Dublin for some quiet reflection, and who is amused and charmed by the local color. After a bit of profanity-laced exoticism (discarded ad copy: "Come spend your Saint Patrick's Day with our charmingly foul-mouthed, hot-tempered pack of drunken Micks!"), the play settles into its form--more campfire than barroom--of loosely threaded yarns that range from anemically spooky to allegedly sorrowful.
The actors tell the stories in a thoughtful tempo, leaving space for reckless fits of pin dropping, but the rhythm is more lulling than mesmerizing. As the monologues unwind, the rest of the cast is rapt, motionless--impressive control considering the length of the speeches. But the stillness feels strained and makes the production seem too much like a string of showboating solos rather than an ensemble effort. The ghost stories aren't eerie or deep enough to either spook the audience or illuminate their narrators. They all resolve with a similar so-what clunk--Do you reckon it was a ghost? Hard to say, I was mighty drunk, but it sure seemed real.
When Act 2 drops most of the wisecracking and seeks a sadder, more temporal tone, the hard-luck tales feel as tapped-out as Brendan's busted Guinness spigot. Inspired by the flowing wine and, hee hee, spirits, Valerie spills the personal tragedy that inspired her country getaway. And though Burke times the waterworks just right, the story's trite and manipulative dolefulness is all wrong. Before this revelation, Valerie functions as a mildly comedic city-mouse foil to the rustic locals. When we're suddenly asked to care about her loss, it has all the impact of a stranger's obituary.
McPherson's play arrives with an inflated critical reputation that even a flawless interpretation couldn't legitimize, but this staging spends too much time grasping for regional flavor and not enough investigating motivation. We aren't, for example, given a sense as to why Finbar and Valerie are together. Since Valerie doesn't need the money and they don't act particularly hot for each other, we're left to assume that she's only there to serve as the play's requisite outsider. Jack's closing speech, a wistful lament for the love he was too gutless to pursue, is more engaging than its predecessors, but by the time it arrives, last call seems to beckon like the recess bell. What is supposed to be an intimate glimpse of the lives of the plainspoken and heartbroken is more like listening to a pack of drunks recount boring stories in variously convincing Irish accents.
At one point in the second act, Jim marvels at the freshness of a 10-years-past event: "You don't feel the time," he sighs. Oh, I don't know, I thought, surreptitiously checking my watch. Sometimes you feel it.