It is surprising that no play by Brian Friel (one of the best-known and user-friendly Irish playwrights of the mid to late 20th century) has received a Broadway revival since Friel’s death in 2015 at age 86 – like perhaps a starry, limited-run production of Dancing at Lughnasa produced by Scott Rudin. In fact, not a single play of his has been produced on Broadway since revivals of Faith Healer and Translations in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
On the other hand, Friel’s body of work (which is frequently described as Chekhovian in nature) continues to be regularly produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre Company, including Aristocrats (2009), Molly Sweeney (2011), Dancing at Lughnasa (2011), The Freedom of the City (2012) and The Home Place (2017).
At this very moment, the Irish Rep is busy presenting the holiday-time bash A Child’s Christmas in Wales at its recently renovated Mainstage space and the immersive James Joyce adaptation The Dead, 1904 at the swanky American Irish Historical Society on the Upper East Side. On top of that, it is also making use of its downstairs black-box basement (which provides those sitting in the front row with unmatched up-close intimacy) to present Two By Friel, which brings together one-acts dealing with doomed romance: Lovers: Winners (one half of Lovers, which played Broadway in 1968 along with Lovers: Losers) and The Yalta Game (which was written in 2001 and is receiving its New York premiere).
Serving as director is Conor Bagley, who is making his Irish Rep debut and has various regional credits. In a director’s note in the program, Bagley (in addition to saluting Friel as “my hero”) tries to draw a connection between the two one-acts, explaining that “they follow budding romances and, in their own ways, ask whether that passionate early love can persist forever and whether the imagination – and storytelling itself – can save us.” While there is indeed a thematic connection, the coupling is not entirely successful.
In Lovers: Winners, two young, vibrant and in love Irish teens, Joe (Phil Gillen) and Mag (Aoife Kelly), spend time alone on a secluded, scenic hillside in order to study for exams and plan their forthcoming wedding. Mag is newly pregnant – a reality that may dampen Joe’s academic and professional aspirations. As they alternately play around and yell at each other, two unnamed adults (Aiden Redmond and Jenny Leona) are seen in separate spaces reading Case Studies in Northern Ireland 1965 to 1969, specifically the case study of how Joe and Mag (immediately following this rendezvous) mysteriously disappeared and were later found drowned.
Lovers: Winners calls out for a kind of lyricism that is lacking in Bagley’s production. Kelly plays up her performance so aggressively that it takes away from her character’s allure and the unspoken eroticism that should be felt between the two. The narrations by the adults are not integrated in such a way that they build upon the scene work, rather than serving as dulling interludes.
Leona and Redmond (who play the only two characters in The Yalta Game) wear the same costumes in both Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game, which implies that they are the same people as before, but use Irish accents only in Lovers: Winners. It is also unlikely that the characters in The Yalta Game (separately married Russian adults, vacationing without their spouses, who begin an affair) would be reading out of Case Studies in Northern Ireland 1965 to 1969.
The Yalta Game begins with Dmitry (Redmond) acting like a confident ladies man and confiding in us that he sees Anna (Leona) as purely a sexual conquest, but their short affair proves to have a lasting psychological effect on both participants, and the play ends inconclusively. This is a slight work (more expository than dramatic) that benefits from vulnerable, sexy performances from Redmond and Leona. However, Bagley ends The Yalta Game (and the production as a whole) on a bizarre note by suddenly and unnecessarily bringing back Gillen and Kelly and having them evoke Joe and Mag’s final boat ride before dying. I wanted to shout back, “We read the program note. We get the point. You didn’t need to take it that far.”