From Horatio Alger to Dr. Phil, an entire industry has promised that your life would be so much better if you would only Get Off Your Ass. Just work hard toward some self-renovating goal, the theory goes, and you can create a new, happy life. In reality, few people exert themselves that way; most remain mired in the unease that Conor McPherson captures with rare clarity in his entrancing Port Authority.
In alternating monologues at the Atlantic, three actors describe lives so ordinary that even the phrase quiet desperation seems melodramatic. Young Kevin falls for his friend Clare, who doesn’t reciprocate; middle-aged Dermot gets a preposterously fancy new job and grows embarrassed by his unpresentable wife; the elderly Joe remembers a gal who got away. If the three Dubliners fail to turn cartwheels of joy, it’s not because they missed a big break, or because they took a wild gamble and lost, but because they’re the kind of people who are constitutionally unable to attempt such feats. “I was thinking that maybe there isn’t a soul for every person in the world. Maybe there’s just two,” says Kevin. “One for people who go with the flow, and one for all the people who fight.” None of these gentlemen is among the people who fight.
Though monologue plays tend toward the talkily mundane, the format suits characters like these, who are better equipped to articulate what they’re feeling than to demonstrate it. “But of course all your dead relatives and teachers from your youth and all the things that are basically yourself are all there, aghast,” says Joe as he contemplates a tiny theft. It helps that Henry Wishcamper shows the same careful grace with his actors here as in his recent, sublime revival of Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha. John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony last season as the manic Moritz in Spring Awakening, is endearing as the soft-spoken shoe-gazer Kevin. Jim Norton, who just finished his run as a blind, drunken reprobate in The Seafarer, is genial, sweatered, grandfatherly—a lovely performance that suffers only when McPherson strains to underscore the Themes of the Work near the end.
Most delightful of all is Brian d’Arcy James, an actor so quietly terrific he’s sometimes taken for granted. When Dermot gets drunk and misbehaves, James makes him seem like an absolute prick; when that bad behavior takes a farcical turn, he seems a charming figure of fun; when he has a soul-baring talk with his wife, he develops a haunted look and million-mile stare, like somebody out of O’Neill. Very passive people ceased to be an original subject for drama long before McPherson wrote this play, in 2001. James’s gentle, unsentimental turn still yields fresh insights on those who look but never leap.