"Aristocrats," Brian Friel's masterful 1979 play, is often described as his most obviously Chekhovian work for good reason. The script and the finely detailed characterizations work in concert to produce an unforgettable drama. It's Friel the playwright at his most lyrical, creating a tale that at its heart is filled with an unquenchable longing that more often recalls early Tennessee Williams than the tragicomic Russian genius. In the Irish Repertory Theatre's welcome revival, we meet the O'Donnells of Ballybeg Hall, Irish Catholic gentry who have for generations lived in the remote and stately manor that overlooks the town. But this once prominent family have now fallen on hard times, and Friel's play begins on a fine summer's day when they have gathered for the first time in years to celebrate the youngest daughter's wedding. It's fair to say that a play as romantic and realistic as this one demands a broad canvas, so it's unfortunate that both the scale and the set design of the Irish Rep's new production are far from ideal. Aristocrats unfolds in the fading drawing rooms and summer lawns of Ballybeg Hall, but looking at the cramped conditions of the Irish Rep's current production you'd be forgiven for thinking Friel had set it in a coldwater bedsit in Rathmines. The lawn shines with a not-in-nature hue that suggests astroturf more than verdant lawns; the bookcases and the books themselves are actually vinyl wallpaper, the actors huddle for space on a stage that barely accommodates them all. Unfortunately the set has a pantomime or sketch quality that works against the requirements of this deeply meditative and naturalistic play. When a set is so jarring that it threatens the production it falls on the actors to rescue the play. But in the Irish Rep's current production the accomplished meet the adequate, and the show's weaknesses are highlighted rather than absorbed. In this production of Friel's play the O'Donnell clan speaks in the stilted but clarion tones of upper class Brits between the wars. Not a hint of Donegal is detectable. It's an odd performance choice, because it further isolates an already dangerously anti-social clan from their geographical reality - and it makes the viewer wonder about their basic reality. Casimir, the surviving male heir, is a tragic figure made all the more by his recognition of the fact. In one quietly heartbreaking scene he tells us that it was his own father who first informed him of his shortcomings. "Had you been born down there you would have been the village idiot. Luckily you were born here and we can absorb you," the father said, crushingly. Over three generations earlier, we learn, the head of the O'Donnell family served on the supreme court of Ireland. His son became a judge on a lower court, and his grandson presided over one lower still. Now the last male O'Donnell is a failed solicitor. It's the sort of rapid descent that leaves no doubt where the story is heading. In the role of Casimir actor John Keating finds a great deal of the humor but not the pathos of his character. Casimir is, in Friel's own words, "a perfectly normal man," but Keating gives us a deer in the headlights man-child, seemingly beset with Asperger's Syndrome. It's also a curiously cerebral performance; we see little of the darting energy that should drive the character through the house and the memories it evokes in him. As Alice, the most haunted (and likeable) member of this austere clan, Orlagh Cassidy gives a spirited performance where the role actually requires resignation. In her performance the inescapable weight of decades of sorrow is seemingly shrugged off and then recalled, then shrugged off again. This is an unfortunate choice. Friel knows there are blows you don't get up from, but we never see them in this uneven production, which seems to back away from the scope of the tragedy as written. Ciaran O'Reilly does well as Eamon, the local boy mesmerized by the fading grandness of Ballybeg Hall, finding his way between his character's bursts of admiration and contempt. He also gives the night's most effective speech, capturing the essence of Friel's meditative, mournful play - what happens to our all-too-fragile souls when our dreams collide with reality. "Aristocrats" is playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street in New York. For tickets call 212-727-2737.
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