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Theatre in Review: Two by Friel (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The Irish Rep is a hive of activity these days: In addition to presenting merry and melancholy takes on the upcoming holidays in A Child's Christmas in Wales and The Dead: 1904, the company is offering in its studio space a pair of Brian Friel one-acts -- one of his classic pieces, Lovers: Winners, and one adapted from a Chekhov short story, The Yalta Game -- as far as I can tell, a relatively little-known work. (Dublin's Gate Theatre has staged it twice, most recently in 2009 in a production that was also seen in Edinburgh and Sydney.) The thought of all those busy beavers on West 22nd Street amuses, since the Friel plays are, typically, concerned with fecklessness, futility, and the puncturing of illusion. Whether they are ideally paired is another question.

Going in, I feared that Lovers: Winners might not stand up when separated from its companion piece, Losers, which, together, form a portrait of happiness thwarted in youth and middle age. (Seen under the title Lovers, they enjoyed a respectable run on Broadway in 1968, in a production starring Art Carney; this is billed as the fiftieth-anniversary production. A 2012 revival by the late Actors Company Theatre provided many pleasures.) Here, director Conor Bagley and his cast make the most of Friel's elegant, rather eerie conception: Mag and Joe, seventeen-year-old sweethearts, have decamped to the hillside outside their town to study for their final exams, which will be, in a manner of speaking, their gateway to adulthood, for Mag is pregnant, and they are to be married three weeks hence.

Joe, who hopes to continue school and become a math teacher, hits the books; Mag, who has a certain magpie quality, assiduously distracts him with her chatter, a cascade of fancies and malicious observations that are calculated to drive him around the bend. "Sister Michael has a beard," she says. "Joan O'Hara says she shaves with a cut­throat every first Friday and uses an aftershave lotion called Virility." She announces she is going into labor, then decides she is only suffering from hunger pangs. Furious that Joe never officially proposed, she demands that he do so, then, turning the offer around in her head, graciously accepts -- as if the idea had never before occurred to her.

For all the high spirits on display -- the jokes, imitations, and put-ons that they share -- darker, sadder notes emerge. With barely enough money to get by, Joe and Mag have rented an apartment right next to a slaughterhouse. Mag already misses her father -- not least, one supposes, because her mother is a regular visitor to a psychiatric clinic. (She envies the fact that Joe's parents sleep in the same bed.) Joe's father hasn't held down a job since God knows when, a source of embarrassment to the boy. Despite their cheerful plans, they are clearly in over their heads, and when Mag, unable to stop running on, gets too much on Joe's nerves, Joe is capable of exploding, announcing, brutally, that she has him trapped. Even more troubling, a man and woman, posed on either side of the stage, read from an account of what happened to Joe and Mag later that day. I won't reveal the details, but the news isn't good, and the tragedy that follows is wreathed in mystery. The effect of Lovers is rather like the traditional death announcements of an earlier era: a statement of life in the center of the page, but all black around the edges.

Bagley gets fine work from his cast: Aoife Kelly captures Mag's adolescent nerve and perversity ("Don't be always quoting what I said...I change my mind every two minutes"), making us see why Joe is alternately enchanted and exasperated by her. Phil Gillen's Joe is all determination and energy, some of which slips away touchingly as he begins to admit to himself that higher education might not be a possibility and a steady office job may be the best he can hope for. Aidan Redmond and Jenny Leona have rather more limited roles of the male and female narrators -- but it is their joint contribution that so effectively conveys Friel's wonder at the sheer randomness of events that make up entire lives. Lovers: Winners packs plenty of life and loss into its short running time, and the unanswered questions about its characters' fates are likely to linger in your mind.

The Yalta Game is adapted from Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog. Set in the resort town of the title, it features Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, a middle-aged roué on vacation from his not-entirely satisfactory marriage. (The "Yalta game" is how he amuses himself, sitting in outdoor cafés, making up stories about the other vacationers.) Bored and looking for a new conquest, he engages in conversation with Anna Sergeyevna, a young, ingenuous matron traveling without her husband. Gurov uses her dog to get the conversational ball rolling -- then, as now, a seemingly foolproof maneuver. The proper and rather shy Anna is at first nonplussed by his attentions, but within a day she is traveling with him to visit a nearby waterfall, and not very long after that she is sleeping with him.

As tales of passion go, The Yalta Game is more ironic than romantic, but it stubbornly refuses to come to life, for two reasons: Bagley has taken the decision to stage it in modern dress, robbing a tale rooted in Victorian morality and manners of valuable context. China Lee has dressed the actors attractively, but not appropriately: Period clothes -- elaborately detailed and physically confining -- are what is wanted, for even in adultery, these characters are bound by the conventions of their time.

Even so, Friel has failed to wrest much drama from Chekhov's scenario, which follows a thoroughly predictable path -- seduction followed by guilt, shame, ambivalence, and an inability to let go -- ending in a standstill that barely seems like a conclusion at all -- so much so that Bagley is forced to import Joe and Mag from Lovers: Winners for a coup de théâtre that doesn't really make any sense. (Too much of The Yalta Game is narrated, adding to the feeling of stalemate.) Redmond and Leona are, at the very least, workmanlike -- Leona is quite good at suggesting how Anna, by degrees, allows herself to slip into a moral quandary that horrifies her -- but their characters are, simply, not that interesting, and the question of whether they are risking their settled lives for illicit thrills never really compels.

Daniel Prosky's set, which features on three sides a matrix of panels backed by walls of greenery -- is attractive enough, although it doesn't suit either play especially well. Michael O'Connor, the lighting designer, works pleasing touches of pastel into his sunlight washes. Ryan Rumery's original music and sound design arguably add more underscoring than is needed. Two by Friel only offers half an evening, although if you've never seen Winners, it may be worth a visit. -- David Barbour

(26 November 2018)

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