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Theater Review: Newcomers enrich staging of ‘The Weir’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE WEIR, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Ian Rickman. Featuring Niall Buggy, Jarlath Conroy and David Herlihy. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC. Through Nov. 28.

The regrettable reality is that many, if not most, Broadway productions, even the best of them, tend to run downhill during the course of a protracted playing engagement.

Therefore, it’s a distinct pleasure to report that, with three of its five characters having been replaced by Irish-born actors new to the play, Ian Rickson’s impeccable staging of Conor McPherson’s risky, magical drama, "The Weir," now in its ninth and final month at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is, if anything, stronger and more compelling than it was when it opened on April 1.

Having been accustomed to extremely small theaters in London and elsewhere before New York, the original cast members were initially intimidated by the breadth of the stage space at the Walter Kerr. Fine as the original five actors were when they opened, they got even better with time.

Now, with "The Weir" approaching its final New York performance on Sunday, Nov. 28, those three newcomers, Niall Buggy, Jarlath Conroy and David Herlihy, are bringing distinctly new values to the parts played earlier on by, respectively, Jim Norton, Dermot Crowley and Brendan Coyle.

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Special note should be made of the work being done by Buggy, one of Ireland’s finest actors, only this past July seen here in the title role in Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," one of the Gate Theatre Dublin’s contributions to Lincoln Center’s "Festival ’99."

Buggy’s interpretation of the role of Jack, the most senior, and, in a sense, the most authoritative of the four friends who gather in that battered tavern in what playwright McPherson identifies as being "somewhere in N.W. Leitrim or Sligo," is vastly different from the spin put on the part by Norton, but at least equally emphatic in its own way, particularly as the intermissionless two-hour tale nears its rueful, reflective conclusion.

Buggy, rounder and more settled-seeming, imbues the role with a sense of deep sorrow and a quality of regret and loss that wasn’t quite fully present in the crisper, edgier reading. Buggy is providing an absolutely priceless and valid demonstration of precisely how differently two fine actors can be in a single role, and, along the way, underlining the old adage at that no one actor can ever fully own any particular part.

Jarlath Conroy, who has taken over for Crowley as Finbar, the eager entrepreneur and real estate man who brings the stranger, Valerie, into the midst of what had previously been an all-male circle, is a familiar presence on the city’s stages, having been an American resident for at least a couple of decades.

Conroy’s Finbar, equally effective as that of his predecessor, seems somehow more open and less hooded than Crowley, and less in thrall to anything resembling a hidden agenda, at least until he steps over the line and tells a story that, in a way, puts paid to the surface cordiality that had, until then, characterized the evening.

Conroy, whose angular face seems to reflect an unbanishable sorrowing aspect, proves once again just how valuable an actor he is.

David Herlihy, having replaced the oddly charismatic Coyle as Brendan, the publican, lacks the compellingly singular sexuality the original actor brought to the venture, with the result that the powerful, unstated "chemistry" between the bartender and Valerie, the newcomer, played now, as earlier, and wonderfully, by the beautiful Michelle Fairley, is somewhat compromised, but without doing any quantifiable damage to the evening.

The two holdovers, Fairley and Kieran Ahern are, if anything, even subtler and more effective than they were when "The Weir" opened on Broadway.

The interaction between Fairley and Ahern, who have, after all, been playing these roles since the play opened on the tiny upstairs stage of London’s Royal Court Theatre on July 4, 1997, seems subtler and warmer now than appeared to be the case earlier.

The oddest aspect, by far, of the story of "The Weir" on the New York stage is that, when the Tony Award nominations were announced for last season, not a single member of the cast got a nod.

The Tony Nominating Committee, notorious for at least one major omission each year, somehow managed to bypass not one, but five, of the season’s finest performances. Perhaps the gaffe came as the result of the fact that the cast of "The Weir" was giving, in effect, a single performance, having achieved to an extent seldom realized the ideal of what’s termed as "ensemble" performance, with the work of no one actor standing out from the others against the fabric of the overall event.

There is very little time left to experience "The Weir," and the rare, sterling and absolutely stunning performances being given night after night and matinee after matinee by the members of this wonderful cast, as strong now with three "newcomers" on deck, as it was when it opened, all those months ago.

This peculiarly memorable, wondrously written play should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to vanish unseen by anyone even remotely interested in Irish theater, or, for that matter, in theater of any description. Go. You won’t regret it.

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