Just as an Irish stew can be tasty despite having an abundance of disparate ingredients, including some that may not agree with your palate, so does late Irish playwright Brian Friel’s (1929-2015) The Home Place offer flavorsome but occasionally indigestible drama. The play, making its New York debut in a lively but uneven Irish Rep production, premiered at Dublin’s Gate in 2005, with Tom Courtenay playing Christopher Gore; it went on to a successful production in London the same year, and made its American bow two years later at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre.
|Rachel Pickup, Ed Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Christopher lives with his son, David (Ed Malone), whom Friel describes as “a hesitant, uncertain young man,” and their attractive housemaid or “chatelaine,” Margaret O’Donnell (Rachel Pickup), with whom both men are in love, creating another significant plotline. Margaret tells the importunate David she loves him; however, given the eccentricities of the charm-challenged Malone, who looks more like a tenant than a landlord, this seems highly unlikely; also questionable is her relationship with Christopher, old enough to be her father. (The father-son romantic rivalry, by the way, is reminiscent of one in another Irish play, Teresa Deevy’s “In the Cellar of My Friend,” a one-act recently staged by the Mint Theater.)
|John-Windsor Cunningham, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Christopher is always talking of his “home place” in Kent, England, and the play often makes reference to similarly stateless English citizens living away from their native land. David, in fact, wants to join such a person by moving with Margaret to Kenya. This state of homelessness among the U.K.’s colonialists is one of Friel’s principal themes, particularly as it relates to Christopher’s position.
|Andrea Lynn Green, Ed Malone, Christopher Randolph. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The arrival of Christopher’s anthropologist cousin, the snootily arrogant Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph, appropriately annoying), with his self-involved assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington), makes Christopher’s position even shakier. Christopher’s research concerns the evolutionary development of the local populace’s physiological features, which he believes hold the key to unlocking their psychological traits and thus offering a key to their future behavior.
|Stephen Pilkington, Polly McKie, Christopher Randolph, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
When he measures two poor peasants, Polly McKie (Mary Sweeney), who begs for a few coppers, and the barefoot Logan Riley Bruner (Tommy Boyle), he treats them more like animals than humans, only emphasizing the disparity between the smug superiority of the English toward what Richard considers Ireland’s lesser specimens. He’s even concerned with the progeny of a marriage between the Irish Margaret and the British Gores.
|Stephen Pilkington, Christopher Randolph, Polly McKie, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
An additional chunk of time is occupied by Christopher’s saucy, young maidservant Sally Cavanagh (Andrea Lynn Green), who flirts with Perkins but is involved with Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins), a rebellious, anti-British hothead. Then there’s Margaret’s bibulous father, Clement (Robert Langdon Lloyd), a gifted but loquacious, Alfred P. Doolittle-like choirmaster, who waxes endlessly about the virtues of the great Irish poet/composer Thomas Moore.
|Ed Malone, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Stephen Pilkington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Friel’s pseudo-Chekhovian, two-act play, which runs an hour and 45 minutes, meanders from theme to theme, sometimes inserting symbols, like a falcon that threatens the household’s chickens; unfortunately, it never truly coheres as an integrated whole.
|Ed Malone, John-Windsor Cunningham, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
We hear a lot of interestingly informative dialogue about things like anthropometric measurements and Tom Moore’s contributions but must wait until well into Act Two before anything truly dramatic bursts out. The final scene, which brings the play to a deliberately inconclusive end, seems at first to be some time later but turns out to be on the same day as all the previous action. A busy day, indeed.
|John-Windsor Cunningham, Johnny Hopkins, Gordon Tashjian. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
James Noone’s painterly manor house setting, delicately lit by Michael Gottlieb, combines a downstage garden area fronting an interior breakfast room; the latter’s lack of downstage walls seems odd, though, especially when characters inside and outside converse with one another.
|Christopher Randolph, Stephen Pilkington, John-Windsor Cunningham, Johnny Hopkins, Gordon Tashjian. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
David Toser has provided suitably attractive costumes, more period-suggestive than historically precise. And two of New York’s busiest composers of original stage music, Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staub, have collaborated here to good effect.
|Christopher Randolph, Stephen Pilkington, John-Windsor Cunningham, Ed Malone, Rachel Pickup, Gordon Tashjian, Adrian Lynn Green, Johnny Hopkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Director Charlotte Moore’s deft staging keeps things moving nicely but runs into trouble when she’s got nearly a dozen actors to dispose of on the small stage. The tall and slender British actress Rachel Pickup, as Margaret, offers the most convincing performance, bringing warmth, intelligence, and strength to the role. Although she uses an Irish accent one wonders why British actor Robert Langdon Lloyd’s colorful portrayal of her drunken dad doesn’t do the same. The silver-haired John-Windsor Cunningham seems emotionally wobbly at times but at least looks the part, while Ed Malone, as his son, is seriously miscast, and we’ll leave it at that.
|Rachel Pickup, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The Home Place may have found a home at the Irish Rep but I’m not convinced it’s really at home there.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 19, 2017