Sunday, December 23, 2018

141 (2018-2019): Review: TWO BY FRIEL (seen December 23, 2018)

"For the Record"

Two by Friel, the title given to a program of two substantial one-acts at the Irish Rep by Northern Ireland’s late, great playwright Brian Friel, closed on December 23, the day I saw it. I write this, then, for the record, not as recommendation or warning.

Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly, Jenny Leona. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
“Winners” (here called “Lovers: Winners”) the first of the plays, premiered in Dublin in 1967 in tandem with a play called “Losers.” The program itself was titled Lovers. The work opened at New York’s Vivian Beaumont in 1968 before moving, after 60 showings, to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre to continue its run for another 88.

Each play was about a love affair, “Lovers: Winners” about teens planning to marry in the wake of the girl’s pregnancy, “Losers” about a middle-aged pair. Both plays were written to accommodate a “Commentator” (Art Carney in the first New York version) who narrates information on the action and who, in “Losers,” also plays one of the lovers. The Lovers pairing had one previous Off-Broadway revival, in 2012.

For director Conor Bagley’s current production, staged in the Rep’s tiny studio theatre, only “Lovers: Winners” remains (honoring its 50th anniversary), “Losers” being replaced by Friel’s 2001 “The Yalta Game,” inspired by Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog."

In some versions of “Winners,” the role of the “Commentator,” who narrates background material, is played by a single actor (Art Carney did it in the original New York staging) but the Irish Rep uses a man (Aidan Redmond) and a woman (Jenny Leona), sitting at either side of the stage, holding soft-covered manuscripts.

In “The Yalta Game” the characters, Dmitry (Redmond) and Anna (Leona), often serve as their own commentators, revealing their inmost thoughts. Although the plays seem only tenuously related, Bagley seeks to emphasize their thematic relationship by a surprising directorial choice toward the end that forces you, distractingly, to try and connect the dots.

In “Winners,” Daniel Prosky’s spare, neutral set, carefully lit by Michael O’Connor, represents a quiet hillside in Ballymore, County Tyrone, where 17-year-old lovers, the studious Joseph (“Joe”) Michael Brennan (Phil Gillen) and the loquacious, two-months pregnant Margaret (“Mag”) Mary Enright (Aiofe Kelly), have come to study for their upcoming exams.
Phil Gillen, Aiofe Kelly. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Joe tries to study his math but Mag can’t stop chattering. Their interactions, now childish, now precociously mature, now mischievously amusing, create momentary arguments and playful interludes as we delve into who they are and what their future may hold in store. Despite the apparent tensions in their relationship and their being forced by social convention to marry only three weeks from now, they seem deeply enamored of one another, sometimes revealed in Joe’s attempts at comic antics performed to snap Mag out of the blues. Considering the sorrow implicit in his tale of lovers dying before living the life he hints will be theirs, Friel's title of “Winners” reeks of irony.

Every now and then, the Commentators, he with an Irish accent, she with a British one, deliver police report-like details on what is known of this last day in Joe and Mag’s lives, culminating in the details of their deaths by drowning in a purloined rowboat. The more deeply we get to know these young lovers, the more our empathy is evoked by our awareness that their budding lives will soon end in tragedy, albeit one never explained. Despite the procedural-style descriptions, what’s important is not why they died but that they did.
Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly. :Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Gillen and Kelly give strong, vital performances, even if they’re not—he especially—always convincing as 17-year-olds. Redmond and Leona maintain their professional air but there’s something about Leona, in addition to her angelic beauty, that makes your heart throb. In “The Yalta Game” you get a thorough dose of her magic.

It’s not clear from China Lee’s costumes when “The Yalta Game” takes place, its leading man wearing more or less contemporary casual wear, its leading lady dressed in a sixties-looking frock, the same one the actress wears in the first play. The man is Dmitry, a suave, well-off, graying, Moscow banker vacationing in the Crimean resort city of Yalta, where tourists enjoy sitting at cafes in the town square and people-watching, making up fictional stories about whoever they see.
Jenny Leona, Aidan Redmond. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Spotting Anna, a beautiful, apparently innocent woman he notices with her ever-present dog, he sets out to seduce her, explaining his little game of concocting gossipy, fictional stories as an icebreaker. Though both she and he have spouses and family back home, they become lovers until she’s forced to return.
Jenny Leona, Aidan Redmond. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Unable to dismiss her memory as easily as he has those of other women, even after he’s gone back to Moscow, Dmitry can’t resist tracking Anna down in her home town. Soon, both he and she find themselves trapped by their mutual passion and guilt, unable to differentiate the truth of their affair from the illusion of it (like those stories concocted by tourists), and without a clear path forward.  
Aidan Redmond, Jenny Leona. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Redmond is a plausible romantic lead, charming and physically attractive, and like his costar, adept at using mimic gestures to make invisible things (like Anna’s dog) visible. Leona, though, takes your breath away. Sitting inches away from her allows you to see the subtlety of her emotional truth, the honesty of her tears, the sincerity in her smiles, the affection in her eyes. After hearing her speak with the sustained elegance of a Deborah Kerr it’s a pleasant surprise to find that she was born in Brooklyn, although raised elsewhere. Jenny Leona is definitely someone to keep an eye out for.


Irish Repertory Theatre/Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Closed December 23