Conor McPherson is master of the incomplete sentence. This is hard to pull off in theater, where voices must fill whole auditoria, but McPherson's characters manage to stutter and rephrase with perfect coherence. In Shining City, now playing at Off the Wall Theater, the four players speak like normal middle-class Dubliners, with all the right awkwardness and well-placed cursing. As dialogue goes, McPherson can't be beat. And because the Pittsburgh theater scene leans heavily toward Celtic lit, it's no wonder that McPherson is so locally beloved.
But is Shining City interesting to watch? That's harder to say. The plot sounds riveting: A reformed priest becomes a therapist, and his client is a widower who sees the poltergeist of his dead wife. Meanwhile, therapist Ian struggles with relationship issues and may need some less savory "professional help." Nice setup.
Yet when you boil it down, and remove the beauty of its colloquial language and gritty realism, Shining City is really just two real-time therapy sessions, one break-up argument, and a bad first date -- three of the blandest scenarios to unfold on stage. And most conversation is so one-sided that we often forget the second character is still under spotlight. After 90 minutes without intermission, even patrons who love plays about normal people chatting in rooms (such as myself) can get restless.
Still, Off the Wall specializes in two things: incredibly daring dramas and profoundly talented actors. If Shining City is not McPherson's finest screed, this production has attracted its perfect cast. As Ian, Dennis Schebetta is both a calm therapist and an emotional wreck otherwise, and as the play's most befuddled speaker, he manages the crosscurrents smoothly. James Maschiovecchio is a convincing street urchin with a heart of gold, and Karen Baum plays a slighted lover with the full-on, even physical, torment that is her trademark.
The standout is F.J. Hartland, sometime local playwright, who plays John, the haunted client. Under John Shepard's masterful direction, Hartland is a loom of words and feeling, weaving his long yarn with all the vivid color it deserves.
For Hartman's performance, we can forgive the play's absurd surprise ending. Such a script doesn't need some ghostly shocker to appreciate its spirit.
SHINING CITY continues through May 21. 147 N. Main St., Washington. 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com.