A prolific writer renowned as a master playwright, Brian Friel created over 30 works for the stage, many of which appeared on Broadway. Among them are Aristocrats (1979), Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). Last year the Irish Repertory Theatre premiered Friel’s The Home Place (2005) with triumphant success.
In the Irish Rep’s current presentation of Two by Friel directed by Conor Bagley, we experience Friel’s deft plot development, incisive dialogue, profound treatment of themes. We witness his comprehension of the human condition and his adroit skill in weaving it into memorable dramas. Friel wrote Lovers: Winners (1967) and The Yalta Game (2001) decades apart. But in texture, artistry, poignance, structure, and theme, each echoes with heartbreak and hope. Both stir our own remembrance of things past and draw us close to the immutable and ineffable in human nature.
The two plays reflect disparate times, places, and considerations. One takes place in Ireland, the other in Yalta and Russia. The protagonists of Lovers: Winners are teenagers. In The Yalta Game, Dmitry and Anna have been around and know the score, each married with obligations and responsibilities. However, the excellent Bagley has made the plays cohere with a clever bridge, lightly securing them with a narrative device. Their similarity of themes, symbols and overarching concepts thus becomes evident. Reflecting ideas about love, imagination, longing, and fulfillment, the protagonists in both seek a soulful unity, with poignant conclusions both profound and elusive.
In this 50th anniversary production of Lovers: Winners, two omniscient narrators (Aiden Redmond, Jenny Leona) identify the protagonists, Joe (the effervescent Phil Gillen) and Mag (his worthy counterpart in Aoife Kelly). The interactions between the teenagers occur on a hillock overlooking their village. There they study for O-level examinations, after which they will possibly attend University. From their exchanges we note their carefree youthfulness, playfulness, verve, and keen hopes for the future. They will be married in a few weeks to sanctify Mag’s pregnancy. Through their conversation Friel relays key information about their backgrounds, which each uses as a hammer to clobber or manipulate the other in a weird combination of self-defense and allurement.
That theirs is an immature, tempestuous, passionate relationship is clear from their games and teasing, which also clarify their respective ambitions. Joe intends to surmount his father’s gambling addiction and inability to hold down a job. Not only has he managed to get rooms for them, eschewing Mag’s more well-off parents’ help. He also expresses his hope to go to London to college.
For her part, Mag’s only concern is Joe, whom she adores. We understand that Joe means more to her than her own life. So when she bombards him with frivolous chatter while he studies, we get that she desperately wants his attention. However, we empathize with Joe. He wants her to “shut up” so he can achieve good grades for college and their future.
The ensuing arguments and pushback indicate their marriage will probably have more than its share of strife and trouble. Though Mag teases him by implying that she doesn’t want to become like a certain woman, who every time she had a baby, deteriorated into blindness, deafness, etc., her fears about children aging her make sense. From their wrangling we appreciate that this pair is just out of childhood, with all of the unfulfilled aspirations of youthful love.
As the scene plays out on the hilltop, Friel momentarily shifts to the narrators a few times, establishing their overall knowledge of the protagonists. They view the soon-to-be-wed teenagers objectively as case studies. At first we do not realize their purpose because Friel ingeniously flashes forward in time – the scenes between Joe and Mag take place in the past. In an unusual twist the narrators make predictions about the couple, but because the key action occurs with the teenagers, we do not heed the narrators’ brief commentary. Ever-present throughout, they sit in silence downstage left and right and let the teens’ togetherness unfold in the past. The couple’s energy, vitality, and affection induce us to forget the narrators are there.
The flashback progresses. Joe attempts to study. Mag twits him, and they argue, slinging insults in self-defense. Joe accuses Mag of coercing him to marry her because of the baby. But he did agree because he cares for her. Meanwhile, Mag twits him about his mother’s employment as a charwoman, the near sole support of the family.
As Friel discloses the deeper aspects of their characters with adroit skill, we become engrossed in Joe and Mag’s profane behaviors. The deeper Friel digs, the more we question the sustained happiness of their future marriage. Their dynamic of pushback appears to be a bittersweet game of passive-aggression, insult, then reconciliation. When Mag admits her parents no longer sleep together, implying they do not make love, her observation carries personal meaning. Will their own marriage be loving throughout? Or will it be fraught with troubles like their parents’ marriage? Will their dreams crash and burn? Did ours?
Despite the narrators’ presence and commentary, we continue to be caught up in the intrigue of Joe and Mag. As in life and human nature, we prefer dramatic realities that characters we identify with create for themselves and each other, oblivious to future happenstance. That happenstance remains opaque, distant, immaterial, until…
The inevitable happens. Friel lulls us so we are not quite ready when the narrators suggest the two have gone missing. Friel staggers the time elements. The scene shifts from the narrators’ flashforward to the flashback of the couple still on the hill. When we see them (two or three hours beforehand), enjoying themselves in the hot sun, we become conflicted. And the full realization hits us. Joe and Mag’s ignorance of their future may destroy them. Indeed, all human nature reeks of the same ignorance.
Though we remain caught up in Joe and Mag’s interactions, the narrators apprise us of the mystery about them. We wonder why and what has happened. Yet we enjoy watching the two on the hillside cavorting happily. Ironically, gradually, we know the end from the beginning, for the omniscient narrators unemotionally tell us. However, like Mag and Joe before the narrators’ concluding talk, we somehow remain lost between flashforward and flashback. We become like ghosts looking for comfort and a way out of the finality.
In the New York Premiere of The Yalta Game, the superb Aiden Redmond’s Dmitry immediately elicits our affection. With his good will and confessional, intimate tone Redmond inhabits Dmitry with gusto and understanding. Redmond exquisitely transitions from the indifferent narrator in Lovers: Winners into the affable Dmitry who flashes back to reveal a pivotal story in his life. As he moves from his post on stage right in Lovers: Winners, he dons the mantle of the urbane, warm, humorous, quick-witted Dmitry. Antithetical to the previous narrator, charming Dmitry hooks the audience like fish on a longline with the bait of his grace, ingenious imagination, and charm.
He confides that he enjoys playing The Yalta Game, an intellectual pastime of all the Europeans who sit drinking coffees in the square. The gist of the game is to make up witty stories about the travelers on holiday dressed pointedly as their identities suggest. But one must keep the stories to oneself. That Dmitry shares them indicates he views himself, rather as his own case study but with an ironic tone. During the course of his humorous revelations about others, we note his stories define a lot about him. Also, we discover the stories are fairly accurate for his astute comprehension of human nature and intuitive pluck scans people like an electronic device.
When his scanner alights upon the beautiful, younger and unaffected Anna (Jenny Leona inhabits Anna with grace and inner beauty), he accurately identifies her marriage and other details. Dissolving the line between friendliness and a stranger’s welcome aloofness, he engages Anna in a harmless, playful conversation. We enjoy watching how the apparently innocent-minded Anna slowly becomes enthralled with Dmitry, who disarms her with his prowess at making conquests. Slowly, by minute calculations, jokes, and his own brand of sophisticated particularity, he manipulates her with savvy adorableness into a consensual affair. Apparently, this comes as naturally to him as his ingenious charm at winning over the audience in his opening remarks.
However, in empathy with Anna we become circumspect about his intentions. He spends money on her and takes her to the area’s beauties. Finally, we pin his type to the wall of definition. He must be a cad. We intuit the ending from the beginning. But when Anna endearingly berates herself as the fallen woman who has lost his respect, her ingenuousness overcomes his artfulness. All masks are off.
It is Friel’s wonderful irony that Dmitry, expert at the Yalta game, has miscalculated his target’s vulnerability. She has flipped the game, reversed the tables without design, and quite simply enraptured him. Surprisingly, for him and us, he and Anna find themselves desperately in love. From charming, debonair, lascivious married rake, he becomes the smitten, monogamous lover-philosopher. Friel’s witty dialogue between the couple married to others crackles with irony and sage humor.
Overcoming our imagination and even his own, Dmitry’s charm becomes immeasurable in his grace-filled moments with Anna. And we become drawn in by his philosophical revelations, which indicate how this experience of deeper love is changing him. Indeed, his authentic life at work and with family becomes illusory, meaningless. The only living, vital reality becomes Anna, especially after she returns to minister to her husband who is ill.
The separation and remembrance of love burns their memories and disintegrates their lives with their spouses. Though Anna has said a forever goodbye to Dmitry and he to her, compelled by longing for their own truth together they reunite. But how long can their impossible love continue? Both know it must end.
How Begley fashions and melds the two plays together just takes one’s breath away. The acting ensemble is extraordinary. Shepherded by Bagley, his economically staged direction enhances their creation of life and ineffable soulfulness. Indeed, Bagley does his hero Friel justice in these superlative renderings.
Kudos go to the economic set design by Daniel Prosky, the functionality of China Lee’s costumes, the lighting design by Michael O’Connor, and the sound design and music by Ryan Rumery. Two by Friel runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre with one intermission until 23 December. Bagley’s meld of Friel’s superb Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game is a must-see. Tickets are available at the Irish Repertory Theatre website.