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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As the program notes explain, the interview quoted at the top of this review was given when Brian Friel was hesitant to make too much of his Philadelphia Here I Come success and downplayed any optimism about a still in the works play. But Mr. Friel needn't have worried that the new play "would come to nothing." However, the idyllic love story he initially wanted to tell turned into a rather bleak take on lovers whose joyful expectations are undercut by circumstances.
The play that did indeed come to something is Lovers, which is actually the umbrella title for two playlets — Winners" and Losers." Though the first playlet is about a very young couple, and the other about a middle-aged pair, each demonstrates the way the real world can get in the way of love's blossoming and prevent a happily ever after outcome. There are differences besides age, to make each play stand on its own. Winners combines a somber documentary flavor with a lyrical but not big on action structure; Losers is more eventful and farcically funny. Though the circumstances determining how each romance plays out are quite different, both are set in the vIrish town of Ballymore and end on an inevitably gloomy note.
Lovers can be categorized as the theatrical equivalent of a mathematical equation: half + half = a whole. This is further underscored by the pattern that permeates the relationship between each couple. In Winners Joe is more moody and introspective than the talkative, ebullient Meg. In Losers, Andy the middle aged lover is the more talkative and less serious half of the pair. Hanna, though aggressively sexual, tends to be morose and silent.
The journey of Lovers to New York's Vivian Beaumont Theater (and from there to the Music Box) was a lot happier for Friel than the romantic journey embarked on by his characters. The play greatly enhanced his reputation with American audiences and was even made into an opera entitled Ballymore. However, the few directors who have done Lovers since the late '60s have opted to mount just one of the two plays,
Since I count myself among the Friel enthusiasts and never saw Lovers in its original or in any half-Lovers permutation, I eagerly looked forward to this "complete" revival. First up on the double bill is Winners which revolves around Meg (Justine Salata) and Joe (Cameron Scoggins) two seventeen-year-olds whose marriage plans are prompted by her pregnancy. Most of the action takes place on a hilltop where the young couple is studying for their final exams and reveal their hopes and trepidations about the impending marriage. Their interactions are alternated with brief scenes in which two anonymous narrators, (James Riordan and Kati Brazda) sitting in chairs on the lower level of the stage serve as reporters matter of factly describing the events before and after the study session. What they have to say casts a shadow of gloom and doom over the the young lovers' more playful interaction.
At 90 minutes, Winning is the heftier of the two plays. It's therefore understandable why it's been done alone or with another one act play more often than Losers.. But being longer doesn't really make it better. Salata is charming and just right as the volatile chatterbox, and Scoggins is even better in the way he exposes Joe's frustration and irritation with Meg as well as affection and passion.. Unfortunately, there's not very much dramatic action to really engage our attention and since we know what's going to happen things feel dragged out.
Compared to the dark outcome of Winners, the second piece brings a welcome lighter touch. It's more comic than tragic. Riordan and Brazda as Andy and Hanna emerge from their colorless personas as winning romantic losers. Riordan is especially engaging, nimbly shifting between monologues and active romps with Hanna. He battles hilariously to get Hanna away from Cissy (Cynthia Darlow), her controlling, overly religious mother. It will come as no surprise that the the old battle axe is the the winner in this scenario. To add to further support the battle axe cause, there's the zealous Mrs. Wilson (Nora Chester).
While brisker and more entertaining than Winners, Friel's take on a spinster daughter champing at the bit to be free of her hypochondriac mother has been dramatized with a sharper perspective by a younger Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, in his first big hit, the gritty The Beauty Queen of Leenane. An interesting aside on this : Anna Manahan who created the monstrous mother in the McDonagh play, was Hanna to Art Carney's Andy in the original production of Lovers..
A round of applaus to the entire Tact cast (and dialect coach Susan Cameron) for their consistent yet always easy to comprehend accents. The two-story scenic design by Brett J. Banais makes for a lovely stage picture . Mary Louise Geiger's lights it most effectively. However, the Beckett is a small theater and impressive as the visual staging is, a simpler set with the action that's now fairly high above what goes on below, would be more comfortably viewed from every row in the theater, if just elevated slightly towards the rear of the stage. As it stands, people further front than the third row are likely to find the view of that upper level a bit hard on their necks.
Brian Friel is having quite a season. Our London critic just reviewed his adaptation of Hedda Gabler. We'll be reviewing the Irish Reps revival of his Freedom of the City shortly. For more about the playwrights work and links to other of his plays we've reviewed see our Brian Friel Backgrounder
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