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Two by Friel

The 50 Anniversary production of "Lovers: Winners" and the New York premiere of "The Yalta Game," adapted from Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Lap Dog," comprise a double bill by the late Irish author Brian Friel.

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Aoife Kelly and Phil Gillen in a scene from Brian Friel’s “Lovers: Winners,” part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Two by Friel” (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

The attempt to draw comparisons between two disparate one-act plays by Brian Friel proves forced and effortful. In a program note for Two by Friel, now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, director Conor Bagley writes, “Although written over three decades apart, Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game speak to each other in sacred whisperings.” In the event of seeing them performed back-to-back, those “whisperings” prove so faint, they can barely be heard.

To be sure, each play focuses on a pair of lovers who come to a tragic end. But the nature of his characters’ tragedies–as well as the manner in which Friel tells their respective stories–are extremely wide apart. Any connections to be found are rather universal ones.

Written in 1967 and premiering in Dublin, prior to playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre the following year, Lovers: Winners concerns Joe (Phil Gillen) and Mag (Aoife Kelly), a pair of high school students who meet on a hill overlooking Ballymore, where they spend their time either working on their homework or talking about the new flat they’re going to live in.

Phil Gillen and Aoife Kelly in a scene from Brian Friel’s “Lovers: Winners, part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Two by Friel” (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

It’s not revealing too much to say that Mag is pregnant by Joe and they plan on getting married, since they discuss this rather early on. Nor is it giving anything away by saying that they’re discovered drowned before any of their plans can be realized, since Friel himself tells us this again and again via two narrators, a Man (Aidan Redmond) and a Woman (Jenny Leona), who sit in red velvet chairs on either side of the confined space at the Irish Rep’s basement theater, omnisciently commenting on Mag and Joe as they intermittently interact.

Gillen and Kelly are both as jejune as their characters, which is to say, impassioned and awkward–their performances prove over the top. Director Bagley might have gotten better results from them by reining them in and achieving Friel’s customary subtlety, which can prove elusive, as it does here.

The two actor/narrators in Winners become the only characters in The Yalta Game, written by Friel in 2001 and now enjoying its New York premiere. When we meet him, Dmitry (Redmond, again) proves something of a narrator, telling us that the “town square is the heart of Yalta,” which in turn is “more exciting” and “more vibrant” than anywhere else “in the whole of the Crimea.”

Aidan Redmond and Jenny Leona in a scene from Brian Friel’s “The Yalta Game,” part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Two by Friel”  (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Dmitry is himself sitting in the town square, ordering a second cup of coffee from an invisible waiter, when Anna Sergeyevna arrives with her (invisible) dog, sits down on a chair, and orders a cup of coffee for herself. It’s the elder Dmitry who strikes up a conversation with Anna, and even though they’re both married, they, of course, fall in love.

Friel acknowledged Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Lap Dog as the principle inspiration for The Yalta Game. But he may have also had Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter in mind, when he wrote his Yalta play, since they both concern a couple married to other people who fall in love and embark on an unrealized relationship.

Dmitry’s discourse with Anna proves extremely confusing and disconcerting, right from the start, when she tells him she’s from Pargolovo, which is “thirty miles west of Petersburg” in Russia, and he contradicts her, saying it’s “three miles south of Rome.” He also tells Anna, “I think in real life you’re a tenor in an Italian opera company.” before adding, “See that man eating an ice cream? He claims to be an illegitimate son of Queen Victoria.”

Jenny Leona and Aidan Redmond in a scene from Brian Friel’s “The Yalta Game,” part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Two by Friel”  (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

It’s quite a while before we learn that this is the titular “Yalta game”: observing others in the town square and imagining their backgrounds. It’s also Friel’s principle conceit here, since we never see anything the characters describe–from Anna’s dog to “an impressive waterfall” they visit. Dmitry even says, eventually, “You know there’s no dog.” Well, is there, or not? We never really know.

Redmond is both jovial and deceitful as Dmitry, living up to Anna’s saying that, “For all his joking, there’s something urgent about it.” Overly urgent, too, is Leona’s performance as Anna. Once again, the performance might have benefited if director Bagley had exercised some more restraint of his actors.

There’s little or nothing to be said about the negligible set design by Daniel Prosky and the obvious costumes designed by China Lee.

Two by Friel (through December 23, 2018)

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org

Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission

 

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (89 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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