STONEHAM — From William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life’’ to Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,’’ from “Casablanca’’ to “Cheers,’’ writers have gotten plenty of traction over the years by gathering lost souls in a bar and letting them wax philosophical.
In James McLindon’s “Distant Music,’’ now at Stoneham Theatre under the direction of Weylin Symes, the setting is an Irish pub in Cambridge presided over by a garrulous bartender named Dev (Michael Ryan Buckley).
During the course of a couple of winter evenings in 2000, Dev dishes out often-unsolicited advice to two patrons: a disillusioned law professor named Connor (Thomas Rhett Kee) who is wrestling with whether or not to accept a federal judgeship, and indeed, whether he still believes in the law the way he once did; and a woman named Maeve (Sarah Newhouse) whose occupation I will not disclose except to say that she is on the verge of an act of rebellion that could lead to an even more significant career and life change.
Connor and Maeve, both Irish-American, are longtime friends who may be tentatively moving toward something more than friendship. A personal transition point might also be on the near horizon for Dev, who came to the United States from Ireland a decade earlier but, tellingly, has not yet gotten his American citizenship. The trio’s decision-making plays out amid discussions about the challenges and contradictions of faith, especially when the complicated spiritual picture includes the policies and leadership of the Catholic Church.
McLindon is a talented writer with a knack for lively, smart, and funny dialogue, and “Distant Music’’ has its distinct charms. But the Stoneham Theatre production does not fulfill the script’s potential.
Though the characters are supposed to be at life-defining crossroads, this “Distant Music’’ lacks a sense of urgency. Despite the theological and moral debates and the references to James Joyce (from whose classic short story “The Dead’’ McLindon has drawn his title), the stakes just never seem all that high.
While Newhouse endows Maeve with a compellingly decisive air that makes her moments of vulnerability all the more poignant, Kee’s Connor seems merely dyspeptic or despondent rather than genuinely torn. Moreover, Kee and Newhouse prove to have little chemistry, draining tension from the will-they-or-won’t-they question that is meant to animate the play.
While Buckley hurls himself into the part of Dev and it’s amusing to hear the bartender spout bits of wisdom he’s picked up from the get-togethers that have taken place in the pub — gatherings of the Harvard classics and philosophy departments, meetings of staffers from “Cambridge Holistic Grief Counseling,’’ a Young Socialist movie trivia night — his relentless talk eventually grows wearisome.
At the performance I attended, the production relied on an ill-advised gimmick that undermined the suspension of disbelief any theatrical production relies upon. Buckley came out from behind the onstage bar and addressed the audience before the show began. Speaking in character as Dev, Irish accent and all, he read off a list of sponsors and asked that they be given a round of applause; he listed a few upcoming shows; he promised to make his monologues audible to the folks in the back; he made the ritual preshow request that cellphones be turned off. Why assign those duties to a performer? Why break the spell before the actors have a chance to cast it?
“Distant Music’’ is laced with local references — the Red Line, the Longfellow Bridge, BU students, the South End — and it is lovely to look at, thanks to the set by Jenna McFarland Lord. The pub she’s designed really does feel like the kind of place where you’d seek refuge on a cold winter’s night. It’s got a cozy aura, with its semicircular bar, the inevitable dartboard, and a small blackboard outside the restroom containing the jocular admonition: “Keep the seat up.’’
Through a barroom window we can see the snow constantly falling, a visual allusion to the famous ending of “The Dead’’ (quoted at one point by Dev), with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’’ Alas, while there are some resonant notes here and there, this “Distant Music’’ falls too faintly.