by Hugh Hunter

Old Academy Players in East Falls opened its new season with “Outside Mullingar” (2014) by John Patrick Shanley. Set in the rural midlands of Killicun, this 90-minute play is a romantic comedy buried inside Irish trappings.

Shanley is a prolific playwright, best known for his Pulitzer and Tony winner, “Doubt: A Parable” (1905), and his Oscar award screenplay, “Moonstruck” (1988). He grew up in the Bronx and only wrote “Mullingar” after making a trip to his ancestral family farm.

A mythic Irish ambience engulfs “Mullingar.” Rain continually falls on the roof of a dingy kitchen. We see homespun clothes, an iron cross and bottles of Guinness. Characters return from a wake, full of requisite bellicosity and gallows humor. At times, “Mullingar” can feel like a compendium of prevailing stage-Irish props and attitudes.

For his part, director Christopher Wunder flashes a knack for set design. He does not beat the dirty kitchen trope to death and lets your imagination fill in the blanks. The play involves three locations and keeps moving indoors and out, but Wunder handles the changes economically.

There are only four characters in “Mullingar,” two oldsters near death and their two children. Shanley is at his best in coming up with witty barbs that naturally grow out of relationships that are always testy and combative. Slowly, an odd love affair between the surviving children emerges.

But you have to work hard to get there, as you struggle to figure out what is going on with these people. Tony Reilly (Ben Kendall) tells the widow Aoife (Barbara Hannevig) he is not going to give the farm to his son, Anthony. It seems like an act of willful contrariness.

Similarly, Rosemary (Tiffany Brink) retains title to a small strip of land that denies the Reilly family road access and hence, their ability to sell the property. Her reason? She hates Anthony because when she was six years old he knocked her down. (Oh, those Irish and their spitefulness!) Yet Rosemary browbeats Tony over his decision to dispossess his own son. So what is going on?

Anthony (Rusty Flounders) is most mysterious of all. He is 42, yet still mourns a failed youthful romance. When it becomes clear Anthony and Rosemary are in love, Anthony cannot bring himself to propose. Only the tenacious persistence of Rosemary forces him to make a late night confession.

Anthony’s goofy revelation is totally unexpected, the kind of trick ending you expect from an O’Henry short story. Yet is does explain his painful hesitation and why Anthony spends so much time tramping through fields and meadows. As with “Guilt,” perhaps Shanley invites you to see “Mullingar” as a playful sort of parable: You only know someone loves you when he/she does so in full knowledge of your most shameful secrets.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Outside Mullingar” will run through Oct 2. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.

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