By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When you get down to it, there are really only three kinds of storytelling: uplifting, dirty and scary. The first might typically be told in church (”On the third day He rose again from the dead . . .“), the second at bars (”A guy once had a dick so long he had to wrap it around his neck like a tie whenever he went to parties . . .“) and the third around a campfire (”One night a couple was making out in a car in Lovers‘ Lane when they heard a scraping sound . . .“). In a way, Conor McPherson’s The Weir, currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse, combines the latter pair of locales, and is twice as strong an evening of storytelling for doing so.
The story unfolds inside a rural Irish pub -- cozy enough, but seemingly located on the edge of the world, the kind of place in which, with the night wind keening outside, you might expect to find Samuel Beckett savoring a pint and a few years of silence.
The place is momentarily empty until a door opens to let in a patron, the first of five characters who will trickle in from the cold. There‘s the cantankerous elder, Jack (John Mahoney); taciturn Brendan (Ian Barford), the pub’s owner; and stolid Jim (Paul Vincent O‘Connor). These men, we gather, are as much fixtures in the place as its beer taps. Tonight, their rigid routine will get bent a bit with the anticipated arrival of local wheeler-dealer Finbar (Francis Guinan), who among other things runs a hotel with a competing pub, and whom Jack clearly despises. The married Finbar, it seems, has been seen around town with a younger woman -- a fact the others choose to consider an insult to the community.
When Finbar does show up with the woman, the others quickly forget his trespasses, charmed as they are by the vivacious Dubliner Valerie (Lindsay Crouse), who’s just bought a house from Finbar. After several rounds of whiskey and beer (the exotic Valerie requests wine), the company drifts to the play‘s business, which is the telling of ghost stories. First, Jack relates a memory of a deceased pub patron who, as a child, lived in the same house Valerie just bought -- the object of mischievous and mysterious knocking on its windows and doors. Then Finbar, prompted by the group’s talk of cigarettes and smoking, recalls a time when he had to sit in a house whose spectral occupant, suffice to say, got him to kick the habit. Jim weighs in next, with a gruesomely funny yarn about the time he had to dig a grave, only to be confronted by the deceased -- who had his own ideas about where he should be buried.
While not an overpowering work, McPherson‘s play is sustained by many small strengths. Among these is his refusal to drop his story into predictable plotting grooves. His characters don’t suddenly say to one another, ”Hey, let‘s all sit down and tell ghost stories!“ At almost any point you’d be justified in believing that the weird tale you just heard is the final one. Likewise, the stories themselves evolve toward a purpose higher than merely producing goose bumps: When Valerie abruptly volunteers her own supernatural yarn, it involves a personal tragedy -- and the very reason she has left Dublin. Finally, the play‘s roundelay of storytelling unaccountably skips Brendan and returns instead to Jack, who completely changes the tone through a long reminiscence about the dreary, hung-over day he spent in Dublin attending an ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
It is this final story of Jack‘s, with its confession about youthful, selfish sex and his unsparing inventory of upsetting details about the wedding day, that sets The Weir apart from any mere Halloween-season play. By blending the ribald with the creepy, the bar with the campfire, McPherson has created a hybrid work that is stronger than its parts. That said, I still believe he would have been better off sticking to the theme of things that go bump in the night, because the strength of this work clearly lies in its ability to scare, whereas Jack’s last tale is such a self-pitying ramble that when I saw it at the Geffen, I wondered if someone had lost his place in the script.
Much has been made of Jack‘s account of his afternoon in Dublin -- his attempt to mock the bride, his retreat from the church to an unfamiliar pub, where his anguish is relieved by the kindness of an understanding bartender. Some reviewers have seized upon this recollection to extend the play’s ghost metaphor to mean that we all have phantoms, in one form or another, haunting our lives. They also see in the weir -- a small dam -- that‘s situated near Brendan’s pub a handy symbol for a sort of emotional dam-breaking that allows Valerie to confess the tragedy that has brought her to the countryside, as well as Jack‘s lifelong regret for not having married.