Liquor works wonders for a lot of plays.
It does for Sam Shepard's "Ages of the Moon," a bourbon-soaked reunion between good buddies, old friends who sit on the front porch, drink (a lot) and await a lunar eclipse. In between, they kibitz, talking of life, love, the Kentucky Derby and a meeting with country superstar Roger Miller.
As character sketches go, "Ages of the Moon," which opened Wednesday at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, is small and narrowly focused in its tale of male camaraderie. Its slight story stretches for barely 80 minutes. Yet the dialogue is tangy and twangy, particularly as delivered by its two fine actors, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley, who first played these roles last year in Dublin at the Abbey Theatre.
Shepard has a way of packing a lot into the often elliptical conversation, revealing character with just a turn of phrase and, in the process, delivering a surprising amount of laughs.
Ames, portrayed with a restless likability by the shaggy Rea, does most of the talking. "We're not exactly spring colts anymore," he announces and then proceeds to be quite frisky, careering about the stage and talking of his unhappy marriage. And watch how this emotionally volatile man deals with a recalcitrant ceiling fan that seems to have a mind of its own.
It is Ames' troubles that have brought Byron out to help _ primarily as a listener _ but he, too, can be cantankerous. McGinley has the orneriness down just right. Their bickering recalls the arguments between another pair, the two tramps in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." And just as Beckett's characters fret over the elusive Godot, Shepard's characters mark time in anticipation of the eclipse.
"There's nowhere to go. Just stay right here. This is good. This is perfect," says Byron, sounding as if he could have just stepped out of "Godot."
But not only is the talk spot on in "Ages of the Moon," so are the silences, which pepper the spasms of conversation, particularly when Ames and Byron down that bourbon, gulping in unison.
Jimmy Fay has staged the play with extraordinary precision, but the action doesn't seem forced.
And there's one big difference between "Godot" and "Moon." That lunar eclipse does make an appearance, with the moonlight fading to black as the Ernest Tubb version of the blissfully sentimental "Waltz Across Texas," helps bring the play to an end.
"Ages of the Moon" may not have the ambition of such Shepard classics as "Buried Child," "Fool for Love" or "A Lie of the Mind," but it is a tantalizing appetizer for what one hopes will be a the playwright's next project: a full, two-act evening of theater.