Judging from the lonesome, relationship-phobic Irish farmers at the center of John Patrick Shanley's sweet put peculiar new comedy Outside Mullingar, it's a wonder that the Irish ever gained a reputation for large families. Anthony (Brían F. O'Byrne) is a 40-something glumly tending his family's farm, still smarting from the rejection of a girl when he was 16. Rosemary (Debra Messing) is the proverbial girl next door, a 30-something on the verge of spinsterhood though she's been carrying a passive-aggressive torch for Anthony since she was 6.
Speaking of passive-aggressive, the Reillys and the Muldoons have been squabbling for decades much is made of an ill-advised sale of a sliver of land that provides the right-of-way to Anthony's farm. But when the play begins, both families come together for the funeral of Rosemary's father. Rosemary's mother, Aoife (Dearbhila Molloy) is there, rightly predicting she'll be dead in a year. So is Anthony's ornery father, Tony (a spot-on Peter Maloney), hinting that he may leave his farm to an American cousin instead of to his loyal but unassertive son. What follows are a series of scenes, often with just two characters, over the course of the next couple years.
Messing acquits herself well in her Broadway debut. Though she seems ill at ease through the first half of the show, too aware of the audience and of the effort to keep up her accent, she settles in toward the end when she's able to deploy her gifts for physical comedy honed on eight seasons of Will & Grace. O'Byrne, a Shanley veteran who originated the priest role in his 2004 play Doubt, is on surer footing throughout, with a soulfulness borne of a thousand petty (and not so petty) slights.
Shanley has an Irishman's knack for storytelling, with a caustic wit that can carry a deeper resonance. At one point, the characters talk about how the only medals Ireland won at the Beijing Olympics came in boxing. "Sure, we're good with our fists. No surprise there," says Tony. To which his son tellingly replies, "There's more than one way to land a blow."
Ultimately, Outside Mullingar is wispier than the smoke from a peat bog. Shanley has a fondness for quirkiness, which provide some of the biggest laughs. At times, though, the oddities threaten to overwhelm the whole affair, particularly in the long final scene between Anthony and Rosemary where they finally, inevitably confront their long-suppressed feelings. On that score, at least, the characters have something in common. "It's feelings boiling up again, isn't it?" Rosemary asks. "Sure I hate them!" he replies. "Feelings are useless."
For plays, though, feelings can come in handy. In the end, too few of them quite ring true here. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)