The story behind the two Wellfleet theaters is almost as dramatic as the two excellent productions that are now onstage -- "This Is Our Youth" at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (through June 22) and "The Weir" at Harbor Stage Company (through July 7).
For the sake of brevity it goes something like this: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater establishes a 99-seat theater on the harbor in 1985 where it presents terrific, intimate productions of cutting-edge playwrights such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Martin McDonagh and Tracy Letts. They also attract a fine ensemble of theater professionals. The legendary Julie Harris joins in on the fun for a remarkable production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
WHAT becomes so successful that it builds a bigger theater on Route 6 in 2007 while maintaining the smaller theater on the harbor. Unable to fill the 200-seat theater on a regular basis, the board pressures Jeff Zinn to provide more popular plays and eventually fires him. Six of the actors who worked under Zinn talk the owner of the theater on the harbor into leasing the space to them instead of to WHAT and, voila, the Harbor Stage Company takes over the harbor in 2012 where it has produced one acclaimed production after another. (Zinn has moved to the other cape, Cape Ann, where he’s now managing director at Gloucester Stage Company and two of the founders have split with the other four.)
But with every theater in Boston, and elsewhere, falling over each other to produce often mediocre plays that are of this moment, it’s exhilarating, frankly, to see great plays that are of every moment...
If the two current productions are any indication both theaters have their acts together in terms of recapturing parts of the old WHAT spirit. On Route 6, “This Is Our Youth” is the “crowd-pleaser” of the season, which is saying something, as it was written by Kenneth Lonergan, of “Manchester by the Sea” fame. Under Christopher Ostrom’s leadership, the rest of the season casts its bets on little-known playwrights Chiara Atik, David Javerbaum and Jacques Lamarre.
Some might say that on paper Harbor Stage Company is less adventurous in comparison. Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” and the production coming next, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” aren’t exactly new plays.
But with every theater in Boston, and elsewhere, falling over each other to produce often mediocre plays that are of this moment, it’s exhilarating, frankly, to see great plays that are of every moment, particularly when they’re staged with the stunning craftsmanship on display at Harbor Stage. The same goes for “This Is Our Youth” down the road. These are the plays that put Lonergan and McPherson on the map, and the theatrical atlas is all the richer for it.
“The Weir” will make you want to visit the nearest Irish pub, particularly if it’s inhabited by the likes of McPherson’s quintet. It’s not your average night at the local rural pub in Ireland, where the bartender and his two regulars are awaiting the arrival of an old mate -- now a successful real-estate agent who’s moved away -- and Valerie, the woman to whom he sold a nearby house.
Once they arrive, the stories start coming, along with the rounds of Jameson and Guinness. It turns out that the house Valerie bought has some local lore, and Jack, the ruddy-faced, burly alpha dog, is off and running with the story about faeries at the door. Finbar, the realtor, upbraids them that they’ll scare Valerie away, but she’s all ears to the stories, for reasons that will become devastatingly apparent.
McPherson, like McDonagh, is a master storyteller, himself, and while there are almost always supernatural elements involved, there’s plenty else going on. Each of the five stories is more realistic than the last, as the play moves further away from fright-night blarney and closer to stories that make your skin crawl for different reasons — for what they say about loneliness and loss; metaphysical possibilities and the impossibilities of fixing things gone wrong.
“The Weir” would not cut to the bone as it does without the great work of the Harbor Stage regulars — the sure-handedness of the direction by Robert Kropf, the minimalist but inviting pub designed by Evan Farley and the as-always perfect lighting by John R. Malinowski.
The acting company has a guest in its midst as well, Gabriel Kuttner, who has become a quality fixture in Boston’s acting community and here he invests the manipulative Finbar with more humanity than I’ve seen from others in the part. Stacy Fischer is always superb and I’m not sure she’s ever been better as the sad-eyed Valerie, who centers the play so richly in the real world with her story. She also shares in a comic scene that shows the ensemble and Kropf at their funniest when the men stare at her agape after she asks for a white wine, perhaps the first wine drinker ever at the pub.
But she doesn’t have the last word in the story department. That’s left to Dennis Cunningham as Jack, who started the proceedings in near-jest and finishes with a story that needs no ghosts to underline a tragedy that’s reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach.” This is the role that the great Irish actor Jim Norton premiered on both sides of the Atlantic. Norton’s mixture of soul and bluster has been seen in nearly every McPherson play. If I were king I’d re-stage them all in Boston with Cunningham in each of the Norton roles. He’s that good.
“The Weir” was written in 1997 and “This Is Our Youth” in 1994. Lonergan’s early talent is evident in the play, as well, though it’s not as solid a piece. In fact, it’s a bit of a historical curiosity in that the three “whatever” 20-somethings of the plot are stuck between generations in Ronald Reagan’s America. Unlike the baby boomers who preceded them or the millennials to come, they have no political-cultural mythology to guide them. Particularly the two young men -- one of whom deals drugs while the other collects memorabilia and steals from his father. Their parents, in one way or another, are no-shows.
If blarney is the currency in “The Weir,” cynicism is the vernacular in “This Is Our Youth,” particularly for this play’s alpha, Dennis, played by a charismatic Michael Goldsmith, who seems to be successfully channeling Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad.” John Evans Reese’s Warren labors to emerge from his domination while Ruby Wolf’s Jessica, like Valerie in “The Weir,” grounds the play in a more humanistic style of addressing the world.
It’s to Lonergan’s and the production’s credit that the play never feels stuck in time despite the fact that youthful anger at the Trump era is far more confrontational than their counterparts’ cynicism in “This is Our Youth.” But director Karen M. Carter and the actors make the two young men seem like another smart variation on Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot” — two men who fill the void of nothingness with chatter and activities that seem meaningless on the surface but serve either a dramatic or philosophical function underneath.
Lonergan combines his Vladimir and Estragon with Beavis and Butt-Head. Except that these two guys are smart — Dennis boasts of turning Warren on to “The Honeymooners,” Frank Zappa and Ernst Lubitsch. And although Lonergan never overtly judges the two young men, there’s enough going on to let you know that he doesn’t share in their sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll nihilism.
In fact, neither do they, really. Lonergan doesn’t offer them an easy way out of their seemingly no-exit existence. The audience is left a bit dangling, as well.
If, in the end, audiences would feel better doing metaphorical shots with the quintet of “The Weir” than lines with the trio of “This Is Our Youth,” these are two productions that make summer on the Outer Cape look awfully inviting.