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Two by Friel

Joe, we'll be happy, Joe, won't we? It's such a beautiful morning. So still. I think this is the most important moment in my life. And I think, I think sometimes that happiness, real happiness, was never discovered until we discovered it. .— Mag, Lovers: Winners

It's a day-long diversion, drinking coffee and divining other lives or investing the lives of others with an imagined life..— Dimitry, The Yalta Game
Aoife Kelly and Phil Gillen in Lovers, Winners (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Theatergoers have a fresh opportunity to enjoy Brian Friel's brilliant talent in a double-bill entitled Two by Friel, featuring Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Directed by Conor Bagley, these miniatures present couples who loved not wisely but too well.

In Lovers: Winners, Joe and Mag (Phil Gillen and Aoife Kelly), age 17, prepare for their final examinations and dream of their future atop a hill that overlooks their hometown of Ballymore. Mag is pregnant, and the necessary wedding is just three weeks away. Their deaths by drowning in a nearby lake devastates their families and stuns the locals.

The play gains power and texture by having two subsidiary characters called Man and Woman (Aidan Redmond and Jenny Leona) recount with forensic vigilance the lovers' final day together and their drowning. The narration and action, working in tandem, give the fragile piece a pitch-perfect tone, and adds a cruel irony to the events.In this psychologically-layered piece Friel tells the audience a deeply-affecting story that touches their heart and then punches them in the stomach at the end.

The second offering is The Yalta Game, based on a theme in Chekhov's The Lady with the Lapdog. First produced at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on October 2nd, 2001, it is now receiving its New York premiere. The play follows the warp and woof of his predecessor's short story, but in dramatizing the tale, Friel richly adorns it with his Irish imagination.

The displaced loners, Anna and Dimitry (Jenny Leona and Aidan Redmond) meet at the resort town of Yalta and have an affair. After their "souffle adventure," they bid each oher "goodbye" and part. But Dimitry finds that he can't forget Anna like his other romantic "conquests" when he returns home to Moscow, his wife, children, and work. He impulsively travels to Pargolovo, Anna's hometown, in hopes of crossing her path and resuming their affair. The whole play becomes a study of how reality and fantasy can blur in one's mind and how it is often difficult to separate one from another.

In contrast with Lovers, The Yalta Game presents us with mature characters. But it shares the same focus on fatal passions that lead the protagonists to emotional cul-de-sacs.

Both these one-acters reveal Friel's bent for experimenting with conventional dramatic forms. Whether it's the introduction of the Commentators in Lovers or the breaking of the "fourth wall" in The Yalta Game, Friel was ever the game-changer and applauded for taking the "rant" out of Irish drama.

Staged in the intimate basement studio, these two chamber works are a fitting addition to the Irish Rep's 50th anniversary season. The acting ensemble is top-notch, as is the creative team. Daniel Prosky's handsome set, in collaboration with Michael O'Connor's poetic lighting, evokes a dreamy atmosphere for both offerings. China Lee's costumes are right on the money for reflecting each character's idiosyncracies and social status.

Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game neatly bracket Friel's career from its early to late flowering and show his posture as a compassionate writer about romantic love. Though Friel gained fame with his 1964 hit Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and revealed his political and cultural intelligence with the iconic Translations (1980) and much celebrated Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), Two by Friel reminds us that this premiere Irish playwright has other gems in his catalogue, and to borrow Arthur Miller's phrase: "Attention must be paid".

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. Two by Friel by Brian Friel
Directed by Conor Bagley
Cast: Phil Gillen (Joe), Aoife Kelly (Mag), and Aidan Redmond (Man, Dimitry), Jenny Leona (Woman, Anna).
Sets: Daniel Prosky
Costumes: China Lee
Sound: Ryan Rumery
Lighting: Michael O’Connor
Stage Manager: Devin Wein
Running time: 2 hours; 10 minutes, including intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 32nd Street.
From 11/07/18; opening 11/12/18; closing 12/23/18.
Wednesday @ 8pm; Thursday @ 7pm; Friday @ 8pm; Saturday through Saturday @ 8pm; Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday matinee @ 3pm.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 11/28/18

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