Might Have Beens

The script for Conor McPherson’s 2001 play Port Authority seems like a director’s dream: utterly bereft of stage directions, the play invites seemingly endless possibilities. Yet, their absence can also hamstring a director. How much license may one take with a play devoid of stage directions? In the Atlantic Theater Company’s current production of Port Authority, the answer is not much, and this otherwise riveting production suffers for it. Kevin (John Gallagher, Jr.), Dermot (Brian d’Arcy James) and Joe (Jim Norton) are, respectively, young, middle-aged and old, and each has a sometimes-heartbreaking tale of love and loss to tell. Sharing a bare stage and a large bench, the three men alternate their tales, rising and approaching the audience in turn: first Kevin, then Dermot, and then Joe. They repeat this process until each story is fully told.

Kevin is in love with a plucky young female housemate he knows he will never pursue. Dermot, likely an alcoholic, with a wife who married him because she pitied him, relates a humorous yet poignant tale of mistakenly being hired for a coveted job because his employers thought he was someone else. Joe, an adult-home resident, tells perhaps the deepest story of all, about an innocent yet guilt-ridden secret he has kept for decades.

While one character is in full-throated monologue, the other two rest on or around the bench, mostly oblivious to the actor who is speaking. Each has a characteristic waiting mode: Kevin is sullen and frustrated, Dermot is resigned, and Joe is puzzled and searching. Since the monologues of Joe and Dermot are very loosely interconnected, Joe might prick up his ears, almost telepathically, when Dermot mentions something related to him.

Because of their abilities to keep an audience rapt, the actors, particularly Messrs. d’Arcy James and Norton, save this play. Under Mr. Wishcamper’s direction, each actor basically stands there, delivering his monologue. The youthful Kevin moves most onstage, but his gesticulations seem reserved given the material he relates to us.

The gripping d’Arcy James and the affable Norton hold the audience’s attention all on their own, despite Matthew Richards' meager use of lighting and Bart Fasbender’s employment of only the faintest of background sounds to occasionally illuminate the words. Each actor would have benefited, at various times, from a spotlight. Mr. Richards dims the stage lighting, dutifully, only in the closing seconds of each monologue. The result is as predictable as knowing which actor speaks next. The play would have also benefited from, at least occasionally, darkening the inactive characters rather than continuously bathing them in dull florescent overhead lighting.

One wishes that Mr. Wishcamper and his cohorts had made more use of the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater’s considerable attributes. As a gothic revival church more than a century old, the space lends itself to the uniquely dramatic. Yet, the gigantic square stage platform is utilized conservatively. Takeshi Kata’s staging replicates a bare bones bus terminal, perhaps in accordance with the curious title of the play, though the only direction the script provides indicates that it is set in the theater.

Mr. McPherson’s monologues, characteristic of about half his plays to date, are composed of poetic and sometimes devastating stand-alone sentences, rarely longer than a few lines. On the page, they read like prose poetry. While the ultimate emphasis is, rightly, on these anguished words, so much more could have been done with this production of Port Authority that its own “might have beens” are almost fitting for the material. One feels that the production adds so little to those words.

Fortunately, the actors, for the most part, masterfully translate that material to the stage, though, ultimately, if I had to recommend one over the other, I would choose the book, particularly for those with imaginations more vivid than fluorescent.

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