The production, as polished as any currently running on Broadway, has many things in its favor: four fine actors, a warm and intimate set, and a plot as simple and down-to-earth as the farm in Mullingar, Ireland, where the action takes place.
Leading those fine performances are Brían F. O'Byrne and Debra Messing, playing Anthony and Rosemary. The pair play lifelong neighbors who have both recently lost a parent and are struggling to find their way toward loving each other. Along the way, Anthony inherits the farm on which he grew up (after some initial doubt about who might inherit the property) and Rosemary begins to make small - then ever-larger revelations about her long-hidden love for him.
This pair is on stage alone during the entire second half of the production, and they hold the stage together nicely with their charisma and focus. Directed with grace and confidence by Doug Hughes, these two performers trust each other, physically and emotionally roaming the stage with perfect timing and steely Irish authenticity. In fact, all four of the performers seem rightly afraid of sentimental claptrap, and the production is all the better for the fear.
Two other performers join O'Byrne and Messing for the first half of the show: Peter Maloney as Anthony's widower father, and Dearbhla Molloy as Rosemary's widowed mother. To watch Maloney and Molloy banter on stage is a joy, it's as if they were born there, so comfortable are they in their roles and in the world of the play. One could feel the audience's contentment and enjoyment watching these two experts field emotions and plot points with the full-blooded richness of two master professionals reveling in their craft.
Messing, in her Broadway debut, shows few hints of her well-known alter-ego Grace Adler, from the popular television show Will and Grace. As part of her comedic talent - which is considerable - Messing relies on a smorgasbord of facial expression combined with a commanding use of her voice; altering its pitch, timbre, and volume for laughs and emphasis. This, alas, sometimes causes her Irish dialect to suffer, but otherwise her portrayal of Rosemary is a solid outing for a Broadway newbie. Skillfully alternating between panic and earnestness, Messing gives us a vital and vulnerable performance.
O'Byrne is a natural within a production as polished as he is. He radiates frustration and the sadness of a lonely, confused soul. By the end of the show, the audience felt such sympathy for him that a curtain-call bearhug from the first three rows seemed like a viable option.
The play itself, the tenth Broadway outing by veteran playwright John Patrick Shanley ( Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Savage in Limbo, Beggars in the House of Plenty), is lighter in fair than Doubt, his most recent Broadway outing. But it is light comedy done very well, with formidable guts and well-built bones. He highlights our quiet fears and awkward truths, all with the pace of a love-ridden, anxious heart barreling toward love.
Technically, the play is in complete harmony, with warm, comfy yellows and oranges lighting the playing space (lighting design by Mark McCullough), appropriately layered and dowdy costumes (designed by Catherine Zuber) and a set designed to shrink the playing space in a theatre that otherwise would've proved too large for this understated show (scenic design by John Lee Beatty).
At the curtain call, the cast's relief at the audience's reaction was visible; they seemed genuinely happy that they had made us happy. Miss Messing, in particular, exuded appreciation - her thousand-watt smile extending from one end of the stage to the other. She has the right to be proud, as do all involved in this well-written, well-directed, and well-cast production.