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Theater Review: Gate Theatre’s inspired staging gives life to Friel’s ‘Aristocrats’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

ARISTOCRATS, by Brian Friel. Directed by Ben Barnes. Featuring Mark Lambert, Donna Dent, Catherine Byrne, Alison McKenna, Frank McCusker, Joe Gallagher and Peter Dix. A Gate Theatre production. At LaGuardia Drama Theater, Lincoln Center Festival ’99.

Among the many virtues of Ben Barnes’s potent Gate Theatre Dublin revival of Brian Friel’s bitterly beautiful "Aristocrats" is that it seems destined to notch the 1979 drama’s reputation up at least enough to give it a ranking among the Donegal author’s strongest and finest works, instead of allowing it to languish in the mid-range limbo where it has resided since it was first seen in New York.

That earlier staging, produced by Manhattan Theater Club in 1989, featured the estimable Niall Buggy, recently seen in the title role in director Barnes’s gifted but oddly muted production of Friel’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," then making his New York debut supported by an American cast. That mounting of "Aristocrats" gained generally positive reviews and ran at the small off-Broadway house for nearly six months, but it never packed the clout mustered by Barnes’s curative new staging at almost every turning.

If one single line in Friel’s unflinching study of a decaying Ballybeg family provides a valid key to the playwright’s intentions, it might be found in a comment one family member makes to the American social scientist who is on the scene studying Catholic landowners. "We have been educated," he says, "out of our emotions."

Friel, endlessly referred to as "the Irish Chekhov," seems to have sculpted "Aristocrats," consciously or not, as a kind of blend of the Russian giant’s "The three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya," with perhaps just a hint of "The Cherry Orchard" thrown in for good measure.

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The surviving members of the riotously dysfunctional O’Donnell family, excepting one daughter, a nun in Africa, have gathered at Ballybeg Hall, the tribe’s crumbling home, the "big house" outside the Donegal village that the playwright created and has used as the location for nearly all of his plays since "Philadelphia, Here I Come!"

The reason for the reunion is the impending marriage of Claire, the youngest of the three sisters present in the play, promised to a local man, a widower with children, in what appears to be some form of arranged marriage. A thwarted piano virtuoso, Claire plays Chopin offstage through several of the play’s scenes.

Alice, next to the youngest, has traveled from her London home in a haze of alcoholic detachment, accompanied by her husband, Eamon, the cynical, energetic grandson of the family’s onetime housemaid.

Judith, a disillusioned onetime political activist, has returned home to care for her elderly father, who lies ill upstairs, heard only over the intercom, or baby alarm, installed as the play opens in order that his needs may be attended to even if his caretaker daughter is elsewhere in the house.

The core of the play, in a sense, is not the daughters as much as it is Casimir, the family’s sole son, a schizophrenic-seeming package of nerves and giggles who lives in Germany with a wife and a couple of children, none of whom anyone in family has even seen, and who, quite clearly, may not exist.

The house has a history of long-past visits from the great names of the Irish and English literary past, each of them attached in memory to an item of furniture over which they stumbled or onto which they spilled something.

The play’s sole awkwardness lies in a bizarre device Friel has employed, namely an American social scientist, awkward and thick-headed, who has come to Ballybeg Hall to study the foibles and failings of the formerly moneyed Irish Catholic "aristocracy," a term at least one member of the O’Donnell family verbally disavows.

Most of the legends of the clan are related to the interloper, whose surname, Hoffnung, translates from the German as "hope," as Casimir points out. The tales that Casimir tells Tom Hoffnung are flagrantly unreliable, including one concerning W.B. Yeats, which the American exposes as an untruth, casting doubt on virtually everything heard around the ancient, unloved mansion and the vast, seared croquet court that spreads before it in Christopher Oram’s eloquent, vaguely creepy setting.

The cast the Gate has assembled for the production, which debuted in Dublin in February, could not, in large measure, be improved upon. Mark Lambert’s Casimir, a match in all respects for Niall Buggy’s terrifyingly poignant work of a decade ago at MTC, is a memorable, haunting portrait of an aging man caught in the remembered coils of his sad boyhood.

The Alice provided by Donna Dent, the eloquent Sonya of the Gate’s "Uncle Vanya" only days ago, is an unforgettable rendering of a beautiful woman as alienated as she is anesthetized by drink, as articulate in her silences as she is in her embittered participation in the family colloquy.

The Judith of Catherine Byrne, last seen here in the title role of Friel’s "Molly Sweeney," is an ideal of long-standing, uncomplaining servitude, while Claire, the family’s sacrificial pianistic lamb, is cleanly sweetly limned by the youthful, fragile-seeming Alison McKenna.

Alice’s husband, the realistic Eamon, is played with fire, wit and clarity by Frank McCusker, while Joe Gallagher provides a telling depiction of a local lad, Willie Diver, who comes to the house to install the baby alarm intended to help Judith with caring for the family’s father, played briefly but startlingly by Peter Dix.

The great Irish storyteller, Eamon Kelly, who played the hero’s father in the Broadway production of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" in 1965, is on hand as Uncle George.

The London-based American actor William Roberts does yeoman service as Tom, the inquiring investigator. Anita Reeves is heard as the recorded voice of the absent sister, Anna.

Joan Bergin’s costumes are apt and evocative, while Rupert Murray’s lighting design helps Barnes’s directorial intentions at every turning.

"Aristocrats," awash in bitterness and regret, may not be the most superficially appealing of Brian Friel’s plays, and it never begs its audiences for affectionate responses, but, especially in this richly inspired staging, it deserves to be ranked with Friel’s finest work.

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