Sam Shepard's Ages of the Moon

Stephan Rea
Stephan Rea

The Abbey’s interpretation of the Ages of the Moon by Sam Shepard was a gift from Ireland of two of our finest contemporary actors doing justice to an American heavyweight. It was also performed in the Atlantic theatre in NYC's Linda Gross Theater at 336 West 20th Street, until March 7th, 2010.

The two protagonists are played by Seán McGinley, who I saw most recently in a blinding performance of The Weir, in the Gate Theatre; and Stephen Rea a movie and theatre star that international audiences will see in Neil Jordan's Ondine.

This realisation of the play is full of wonder, precisely because it leaves you wanting to see it again. There are layers of interest piled on top of the sparse set and the opening light-hearted banter that we expect to channel into the heart of the mysterious problem, which brought one man across a vast country at the mere bleat of his friend.

Ages of the Moon is laugh out loud funny. It slips easily into moments of farce that are perfectly timed releases of the uneasy tension between the two men. What you’re laughing at though is a recognisable frustration at the unfathomable – inanimate objects that should but don’t work, the preposterous gall we have at suddenly seeing our own vanities, the cross-purposes of understanding, even of intimates such as these lifelong friends.

The premise of the play is something that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon could do with omniscient flair – two old geezers meet up after 30 years and shoot the breeze over a bottle of bourbon – but it quickly moves from the solidly familiar ‘this is a fixable normal crisis’ that actors like Matthau and Lemon would bring to the roles.

There are subtle but telling jarring clues that this is not Grumpy Old Men.

It could have been because it was Movember (when in Ireland the whole up-for-it male population of country was gripped by the whim to grow a moustache, just to see whose took off like wildfire and whose barely registered as fluff)*. This spirit of camraderie and national effort may have been the spark under Stephen Rea’s decision to sport a retro-Latino thin and asiduously-cared for moustache to define his character’s sense of himself as a suave, sultry lover. (If so, the national effort was not in vain, as it immediately gave me a picture of a man with notions above his actual prowess. A touch of genius, Mr Rea.)

Another dissonance in the play is that the dynamics between Byron (McGinley) and Ames (Rea) aren’t as irrascibly bonded as those between Matthau and Lemon, which if they’re friends for 30 years sets another layer of curiosity on top of their disjointed attempts at conversation. We learn that they haven’t actually met in some time and the crisis (revealed quickly as being that Ames’ wife has kicked him out and isn’t forgiving him) is the first time in decades they’ve had to actually be the friends they think they are.

There’s lots of juicy, immediate charms in their problem. Knots of intense curiosity are offered tantalisingly by Shepard in how he sets up the scene of Ames’ fall from grace in his wife’s eyes. It’s all related by Ames, and his and Bryon’s separate descriptions of Ames’ wife depict a woman we recognise as being powerfully sexy, urgently desired, yet a little dangerous and mercurial. There’s no disipation of those qualities even though they’re describing events that happened in the past.

As the bottle of bourbon progresses the conversation wheels off to fairly daft antics that have the two old eejits rolling around wrasslin’. But another jarring layer that adds uneasiness to the proceedings is Byron’s annoying (has to be said) inability to get to grips with Ames’ quite blatant, understandable and, yes, reasonable call for permission to act the maggot in the company of his oldest friend. Byron seems to waver between doing the right thing and then losing the plot and collapsing back in thrall to some unnamed problem he has of his own. It’s another mystery that gets resolved before the curtain call and adds to the gentle rythym of the play’s progress.

This is quite apart from the hilarious slapstick sequences in which Byron has to run for his life when Ames’ bourbon and misery overtakes his sense of proportion. While it’s predominantly a funny play, there’s a poignancy in their exploration of their established, ruptured and revised friendship that elevates Ages of the Moon from comfortable, self-congratulatory platitudes.

Its Abbey premiere has already attracted great reviews in Ireland, as did its original performance in the Peacock from The Guardian. So in the interests of giving you three perspectives on the same thing, I've included other opinions of it too. (Well, OK then, I did only include this one to let everyone know that I've been in the same room as Sam Shepard :D)

The Movember Marathon Moustach-Maker is a fundraiser in aid of prostate cancer.

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