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.
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.”
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.”
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