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Dead of Night

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.

However, this is really stretching the meaning of McPherson’s play. After all, sometimes a weir is just a weir, and, frankly, all I learned from Jack‘s monologue is that he’s the kind of guy who breaks into tears whenever someone hands him a ham sandwich. (McPherson‘s stage directions call for a prop TV -- are we to infer that it, too, has ghosts on its screen?)

What, then, is the purpose of this enigmatic play? I confess that I haven’t any idea, although I‘m not tempted to grab on to McPherson’s vague symbols to give it meaning. The playwright has written that The Weir was inspired by visits he once made to his grandfather, who lived near the River Shannon in the very same region of Ireland as the play‘s setting, and that the two would sit around a fire, drinks in hand, as the old man told McPherson stories.

I think it’s plain that The Weir is simply the transformation of those visits into an atmospheric drama with no metaphors attached. And as atmosphere, The Weir has few peers. McPherson has crafted the perfect environment for his story; the pub, with its dim lighting, warm fire and imagination-prodding whiskey, is the drinking man‘s campfire, a place where camaraderie is assured, confidences shared -- and the piss taken out of anyone who becomes too serious. More important, his characters’ stories -- particularly the first three -- are truly chilling, all the more so when we realize they transpired in modern times on an ancient land overpopulated with ghosts.

McPherson also has a natural ear for the speech of his countrymen, a ruminating catechism of irony, exaggeration and consolation. There‘s a moment in which Finbar warns Valerie of predatory older men (unaware that he could be describing himself) and then sketches a bachelor’s desolate home, which turns into a dig against Jack:

FINBAR: . . . Thirty years of old newspapers and cheap thrillers, all lying there in the damp since their mammies died, and that was the last bit of cleaning went on in the place. That right, Jack?

JACK: That‘s us to a tee.

Toward this end, director Randall Arney has assembled a first-rate production, with Karyl Newman’s scenic design gathering us in the intimate embrace of her pub set, which is brushed by Daniel Ionazzi‘s subdued lighting. Arney, the former longtime artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theater, is acutely aware of atmosphere, especially the way it is changed by the arrival of characters and the tidal pull they exert on one another by their gestures or positioning.

Arney’s actors all turn in creditable performances, with Mahoney drawing most of our attention with his turn as the melancholy Jack, an old man who is not a patriarch but nevertheless, late in his life, finds sympathy for a distraught mother. Apart from Guinan‘s jaunty moments as Finbar, the other actors don’t really compete for our attention, partly because their characters are so low-key. Regrettably, too, the cast‘s brogues seem to thicken and falter all over the place, settling into a standard stage Irish. Considering the play’s conceit, however, this is hardly the scariest thing we hear during the evening.