by Hugh Hunter

John Patrick Shanley has written a diverse body of plays, most notably the controversial Pulitzer Prize winner, “Doubt.” But when he writes in the romantic comedy genre, as in “Outside Mullingar,” now running at Stagecrafters, he knows how to hit the sweet spot.

He eludes the schmaltz of romcom by situating the play in exotic circumstances. Though a Bronx, NYC Irish Catholic, Shanley managed to capture an Italian-American aura in his hit movie “Moonstruck.” He pulls off the same trick in “Mullingar,” plopping us down in rural Ireland where the people do not think, talk or even walk like you and me.

Shanley does create a believable rural Ireland (or at least, he fools me). You feel the small farmers’ isolation from the larger world, which they sum up in big, frightening words like “Dublin” or “America.” Their cocooned lives allow essential traits to flourish: holding onto lifelong grudges and a gift of gab so as to avoid saying the simple truth.

Director Jane Toczek doubles down on the parochial ambiance. A small kitchen comes with the usual homespun staples — an iron stove, a dish cluttered sink and yellowing walls. Toczek also takes you outdoors in a flash, where characters chat by a wooden shed. (set design and décor, Marie Laster). Thanks to Patrick Martin, you hear occasional sounds of pastoral wildlife, and nothing quite matches the mournful lament of Irish harp and pipes.

But deep inside this exotic sense of place, romantic comedy is still the driving force: Two lovers desperately need each other but cannot speak or act plainly. Pesty relatives get in their way, and rival romantic interests muddy the waters further.

The four characters come up with passable Irish accents (though you do wince a few times). John Barker as Anthony Reilly and Madalyn Defelice as Rosemary get you to pull for the two lovers. Their old folks, Tony Reilly (John Devennie, Sr.) and Aoife Muldoon (Stacy Skinner), are both on death’s doorstep (another Irish staple) and take turns abetting and complicating their children’s lives.

The story consists in digging up family secrets hidden in farm fields. Rosemary is a steady, demanding presence. She has no “Moonstruck” moment, as when Cher screams “Snap out of it!” but driven by her own pain, Rosemary is quietly relentless in forcing the Reilly family to come clean.

“Mullingar” is a charming romantic comedy with the requisite happy ending, full of unique twists and turns. The final whopper Rosemary unearths is so absurd you are too stunned to laugh. Yet it has a weird plausibility; director Toczek saves it for a short and winning Act II.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Inside Mullingar” runs through Sept 29. Reservations: 215247-8881 or www.thestagecrafteers. org

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