The Irish dairy farmer Tony Reilly believes his son Anthony has inherited the craziness of his late mother's side of the family. Tony's father-in-law, after all, once "took his dog to court for slander." When actor Wil Love delivers that line in the new production of "Outside Mullingar" at the Everyman Theatre, the audience shakes with laughter at the sheer absurdity of it. Little does the audience know that the line foreshadows a crucial, second-act plot point.
It's that kind of hearty humor and inventive storytelling that makes the show such a pleasure. After so many Hollywood movies with overly cute characters and overly sweet sentiments, the good name of romantic comedy has been badly damaged in recent years. But playwright John Patrick Shanley restores that reputation with plot twists as surprising as the punch lines—and a small taste of death to counter the sugar rush.
It's not that John Patrick Shanley's script departs from the formula of unlikely lovers being pulled together by a mutual attraction, only to be flung apart by an obstacle that is finally overcome. It's that both the incompatibility and impediment are such original inventions that we are caught off guard despite the narrative formula. And the show's constant reminders of mortality become the ticking clock on a bomb that the would-be lovers must defuse before it's too late.
The play could easily have been called "Four Funerals and a Wedding." It opens at a kitchen table in County Westmeath in rural Ireland on the evening after the second funeral. The newly widowed Aoife Muldoon (Helen Hedman) is visiting her neighbors Tony (Wil Love) and his son Anthony (Tim Getman). But no sooner are the condolences offered than the neighbors are once again wrangling over a slice of land that the Reillys once sold to the Muldoons and have been trying to buy back ever since.
Aoife, refusing to drink Guinness from a bottle because she "can taste the glass," reveals that the land doesn't even belong to her; it belongs to her daughter Rosemary (Beth Hylton). It seems that when a 12-year-old Anthony pushed a 6-year-old Rosemary down on that spot 30 years earlier, she demanded that her father give her the deed to that land. She has refused to let go of it ever since.
Hylton's performance as Rosemary is the engine that makes this production hum. We first see her puffing on a pipe under the eaves of the Reillys' barn, her red bangs poking out from under a blue beret and the black rubber waders of a dairy farmer covering half her legs. She has the caustic frankness of someone who has shoveled a lot of cow manure, and if this makes her an unlikely romantic lead, it also makes her the dogged pursuer of the elusive Anthony.
He is also a dairy farmer, tall and gangly in his brown beard and matching sweater, but after being jilted by a former fiancee and jerked around by his father over his inheritance, Anthony takes little joy in his work and avoids other people. Getman pulls off the difficult trick of making us interested in this closed-down character by giving furtive glances at the world around him, hinting at the spirit locked up inside him.
The world around him is evoked by Daniel Ettinger's set, a lush Irish hillside painted on barn siding, which slides away to reveal the Reilly kitchen or the Muldoon kitchen as need be. Director Donald Hicken turns that landscape, almost given voice by the Irish folk music playing in the background, into a fifth character, a harsh taskmaster that seems to weigh heavy on Anthony's shoulders while spurring Rosemary into action.
And once Rosemary sets her sights on something, she cannot be denied. Hylton manages to make her ferocious without ever being mean. When she confronts the dying Tony over his treatment of Anthony, she shrugs off his every refusal and keeps after him until the white-bearded patriarch seems to shrink beneath his blanket. And this is a mere appetizer to her climactic showdown with the son, two funerals later.
The ending is never in doubt, but the twists and turns in the path getting there are often as startling as they are delightful. Shanley's earlier romantic comedy, the 1987 movie "Moonstruck," was a credit to the genre, but 2014's "Outside Mullingar" is even better, thanks to better jokes, better plot surprises, and just enough death to give the jokes their sting.
"Outside Mullingar," written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Donald Hicken, is at Everyman Theatre through Jan. 10.