By Joseph Hurley
GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER, DO! by Brian Friel. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Featuring John Glover, Kate Burton, Joel Grey, Helen Carey, Lois Smith. Gawn Grainger and Michael Emerson. Roundabout Theater Company. At the Gramercy Theatre, East 23rd Street. Through Jan. 2.
In this, his 70th year, the redoubtable Brian Friel is displaying once again the guts of a burglar. While "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is vastly more accessible than, say, "Faith Healer" or even the neglected and even somewhat maligned "Wonderful Tennessee," the courageous and endlessly risk-taking master from Donegal doesn’t make it exactly easy for audiences in his new play, now in a deeply exquisite Roundabout Theatre Production at the Gramercy Theatre, where it will be in residence through Jan. 2, 2000.
The rich and rewarding materials of "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" include not just one or even two rancorous, disputations couplings, but three poisonous marriages in various states of disarray, to which Friel adds not merely a single, self-loathing, crumbling novelist, but two, each of them seemingly at or near the end of his fraying creative rope.
Friel, endlessly and possibly annoyingly referred to as the "Irish Chekhov," seems to have caved in before the charge this time. Not only is the sorrowing new play unavoidably resonant of the tone of the great 19th century Russian titan’s work, but early in the first act, the playwright puts a meaty quote from the final scene of "Uncle Vanya," a play that he has himself adapted, into the mouth of Tom Connolly, the blocked writer who is at the heart of this glorious, unforgettable play, particularly in the dazzlingly painful performance being turned in here by the awesome John Glover.
"Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is very much an ensemble piece, again in the purest Chekhovian sense, and that the meticulous production by director Kyle Donnelly, supported in every detail by the set design of Thomas Lynch and the subtle lighting by Kenneth Posner, proves that American actors, if well cast and well coached, can do the plays of Brian Friel virtually as well as the Abbey and the Gate can.
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Credit must be given to dialect coach Stephen Gabis, who appears to have coaxed director Donnelly’s superficially disparate cast into a light, generally acceptable approximation of the subtle, difficult sounds of the natives of Donegal. To cite what is probably the production’s biggest surprise, Joel Grey, not an actor one might immediately associate with the plays of Brian Friel, comes through with a memorable, near-shattering portrait of an aged, semi-retired small-time cocktail pianist with a mortifying personal flaw, a defect on which the second act of the play, basically a casual, late summer picnic, turns. The fussy Jack Donovan, down to his shoes, made from "the skin of a boa constrictor," is an indelible creation from actor Grey.
The scene of "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is specified as "the old manse, Ballybeg, County Donegal." Ballybeg is, of course, the imaginary village which Friel created some 35 years ago, and which he has been populating and writing about ever since, while a "manse" is described by Webster as "the residence of a clergyman." In the case of the beautifully desiccated and use-worn dwelling conjured up by designer Lynch, with a forest of verdant vines seeming about to devour the entire structure, the manse hasn’t seen a churchman in years, and, in fact, prior to its acquisition by novelist Connolly and his hard-drinking wife, Daisy, strongly played by Kate Burton, served as a youth hostel for a while.
The name Friel gives his female lead, Daisy, provides an obvious link to the play’s title, a lift from the turn-of-the-century popular song "A Bicycle Built For Two," but the work’s poignant framing device, two visits on the part of Tom Connolly to the institution where the couple’s catatonic 22-year-old daughter, Bridget, resides, suggests that the writer is the true, throbbing heart of the event.
Connolly, author of 12 or 14 books, by his own casual count, is one of the most striking characters Friel has created to date, fully able to stand alongside the roles played so brilliantly by the late Donal McCann in "Faith Healer" and, more recently, in "Wonderful Tennessee."
He is a man who retreats behind a facade of glib but carefully remembered and accurately regurgitated literary quotations at moments of stress, hence the fragment from "Vanya," but also stretching to the Viennese philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others.
The issue underlying "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is the presence of a London-based literary appraiser, David Knight, pondering the purchase of Connolly’s collected papers and letter for deposit in the library of a Texas university.
Also on hand for a visit are Jack and Maggie Donovan, Daisy’s parents, and Garret and Gráinne Fitzmaurice, Bridget’s godparents, and, in the case of Garret, a senior novelist, more popular but equally as self-disappointed as Tom, if not moreso.
The cast if flawless and unusually unified-seeming, with Lois Smith and Grey as the Donovans, Helen Carey and Gawn Grainger, the sole holdover from the play’s London production, as the Fitzmaurices, and Michael Emerson, fresh from his solid performance as Willie Oban in the recent Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s "The Iceman Cometh," as Knight.
In the wordless child-woman of the play’s opening and closing vignettes, Woodwyn Koons, assuming a physical attitude reminiscent of Wyeth’s "Christina’s World," makes a powerful impression, as does Nancy Robinette as the nameless, hard-shelled hospital nurse, only very briefly seen.
Carey, in her third Roundabout appearance, given one of those flamboyant, large-hatted, flower-bearing entrances Noel Coward parodied in "Hay Fever, brings a slash of vibrant color to the endeavor just when Friel’s somber underlying tone threatens to damage the proceedings.
Carey’s Gráinne knows precisely where to strike, in order to inflict the most stingingly painful emotional wound to Garret’s thin skin, including one particularly effective thrust involving the title of one of his books, "Soft Underbelly."
Actress Smith’s movingly detailed Maggie, enduring the problems caused by Jack’s repeated moral lapses, knows where to hit, too, as, in her somewhat sedated way, does Daisy, subtly underplayed by actress Burton.
Friel, however, isn’t presenting a gallery of vengeful wives, their surfaces marred by the patterns of years of bad marriages. The husbands, who seem, each in his own way, to be isolated from virtually everything going on around them, have their own marital weapons and have learned, over time, to wield them effectively and efficiently.
The Friel play closest to "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is very clearly "Aristocrats," seen in an excellent production this past July as part of the Gate Theatre Dublin’s contribution to Lincoln Center’s Festival 99.
Here, as in the earlier play, is a time-worn house on a hill above Ballybeg, and here again, a family awash in confusion, anxiety and despair, some of its members turning to alcohol as an escape route. Once again, there is a filigree of lies, deceptions and misunderstandings, complicated, but not ultimately dense enough to smother the love and loyalty that still, despite everything, binds these particular wives to these particular husbands, and these adults to their adult children.
Here, again, a piano is heard as the play opens and closes, with frequent mentions in the text of Schumann, Mendelssohn and even John Field, the Dublin-born composer and pianist whose music Friel used in his celebrated adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s "A Month in the Country."
Now, as in "Aristocrats," a female character has an abortive career as a concert pianist, while, in the case of dapper Jack Donovan, there was an actual career at the instrument, now mainly abandoned.
Make no mistake, "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is definitely, despite the somewhat claustrophobic limits it has set for itself, a major play within the ever-growing canon of works by the astonishing Brian Friel.
With Seamus Heaney having won the Nobel Prize only a few years ago, it’s probably still too soon for the committee’s sweeping searchlight to come to rest on another Irishman, but it is profoundly to be hoped that the former schoolmaster from Donegal will live long enough and produce enough additional work that it will somehow be impossible for the givers of the world’s great award not to grant him the recognition he so richly deserves.
Meanwhile, there is "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" to add to the list of admirable plays, some obscure and even scorned, others accessible and much beloved, but absolutely none of them without value, produced by the hands, head and heart of this amazing, modest man who prefers the shadows to the spotlight