The first half of New York's unofficial Sam Shepard festival began last night with the American premiere of "Ages of the Moon." The new piece, a welcome import from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, has just two actors and runs 90 minutes - a mere heartbeat compared with the upcoming multicharacter revival of his
"A Lie of the Mind," which ran almost four hours in 1985.
But don't dismiss this as a curtain raiser for the main event. Like those masters of concision, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, Shepard, 67, has been saying more with less as the years pile up. His dirt-kicking characters don't mellow so much as they begin to rot - as befuddled, suddenly, as they are still raucously unrepentant.
As a genre, this is an old-guys-on-a-park-bench play. But since this is Shepard, they're on a porch in the violent and woozy middle of the American nowhere, punctuating their pauses with bourbon.
Stephen Rea, best known here from such Neil Jordan films as "The Crying Game," is Ames, a mess of a man, exiled from his wife after an indiscretion with a woman he hardly remembers. Sean McGinley is Byron, ostensibly a tidier friend from bygone days. He has come from a long distance because Ames phoned him in a late-night panic. For a while, anyway, Byron surveys the situation like a shrewd old bird, come to offer "some kind of moral support or something."
They swap half-recalled stories that morph in and out of the comfort of fond memories. They exchange raunchy, oddly poetic observations about women and bikes, women and the moon. They start drinking at noon and, except for bouts of laughably perilous fighting, don't stop until the late-night lunar eclipse.
The Irish actors, under Jimmy Fay's direction, have all the requisite shaggy precision, scary humor and helplessness - and dead-on American accents. Rea, who brought Shepard's "Kicking a Dead Horse" here from Dublin last year, says his country understands the playwright's "loss of sense of certainty about the mythology that sustains a society." When Ames asks, "Where the hell are we supposed to be?" we're exactly in that strange familiar place where Shepard, at his best, has always put us.
WHAT "Ages of the Moon"
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., Manhattan
INFO $65; 212-279-4200; atlantictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Prime Shepard country