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A CurtainUp Review
Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Screwballs, we've eaten together like this for the past twenty-odd years, and never once in all that time have you made as much as one unpredictable remark.
---Private Gar

Michael Fitzgerald, James Kennedy, Paddy Croft  and Edwin C. Owens
M. Fitzgerald, J. Kennedy, P. Croft and E. C. Owens
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Seeing this revival of Philadelphia, Here I Come, my mind wandered back to the festival of playwright Brian Friel's work presented at Lincoln Center six summers ago as a commemoration of his fortieth year of playwriting. I also reflected on what it would have been like to experience this, his first play to be seen in America, as a first impression in 1964.

The Lincoln Center undertaking was a retrospective commemorating Friel's (to then) forty years of playwriting, and included two of his original works, as well as his adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. From our vantage point, we think of Friel as an insightful chronicler of what it meant to be Irish in the latter half of the 20th Century. What an uncluttered view of Philadelphia would permit is a realization that Friel's brilliance is as an observer of the human condition, not exclusive to things Irish.

The play has to do with its setting (the fictional small village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, to which Friel has returned often) only at the margins. Like Chekhov, Friel limns a far broader canvas. What's most remarkable is that the risky device he uses -- giving us two versions of the central character, dubbed "Public" Gar and "Private," Gar, and portrayed by separate actors (here, Michael FitzGerald and James Kennedy, respectively) -- is they bulb that illuminates these humans' natures. One can imagine this tactic being branded a gimmick employed by a young playwright learning his craft; it is not: indeed it is an essential and perfectly chosen means of the writer's poignant (and here amusing as well) expression of the way in which the conflict between our inner and outer selves leads us to crisis. As noted in our earlier review of this play, linked below, a central thread of Friel's work has been the notion of "exile". Here, one could say that the public character of Gar is in exile from his inner self, making his dramatic decision to become an exile (to Philadelphia) in reality a direct manifestation of that internal conflict.

Ciarán O'Reilly has assembled a terrific cast for this endeavor. His production is well designed and smartly staged, though at times he seems to get more caught up in its words than its action and pacing, resulting in some listless segments. This is especially true in the long second act, and I wonder if a different choice regarding the intermission might have improved matters. Notwithstanding, the production is both credible and rewarding.

The two Gars -- Gareth O'Donnell in full -- are a splendid pair. Mr. FitzGerald plays the less showy half, but his combustible frustration sets off perfectly against the older, wiser and already ignited Kennedy. The Public Gar sits on a fulcrum between his Private self and his laconic father (Edwin C. Owens), the source of most of his problems, in whom any embers that are still glowing are certainly not evident. The highly acrobatic and ever-present Kennedy is at his best when at his most cynical -- invisibly goading his public self while mockingly announcing as if choreographing the predictable movements of the father. Private Gar is Al Jolson to Public Gar's Felix Mendelssohn.

One of the beauties of Friel's character arrangement is the way in which he sets them in counterpoint. Nowhere is this more elegantly managed than in Madge (Paddy Croft), the wry housekeeper who is effectively the other member of the O'Donnell household. Soured by eminently sensible, suffering but steadfast, Croft gives a needed glimpse at her employer's shortcomings. Owens is astonishing in his ability to eschew affect, with a face so expressionless one might think he suffered from a Botox overdose.

The remainder of the cast appears in a parade of visitors, past and present, and all acquit themselves very effectively: Tessa Klein and Gil Rogers as Gar's erstwhile girlfriend and her father; James A. Stephens as Master Boyle, Gar's teacher; Helena Carroll (whose performance is certainly the most eccentric and thus memorable) and John Leighton, as Gar's Philadelphia-based aunt and uncle to whom he will go upon leaving Ireland for America, as well as their American friend, Ben Burton (Geddeth Smith; Gar's three buddies (Tim Ruddy, Joe Berlangero and Darren Connolly) who, as it turns out, pay him a half-hearted farewell visit; and the local minister (Leo Leyden).

The set David Raphel has designed for this production, a kitchen in the foreground, Gar's bedroom on a raised playform behind, with a scrim backdrop beyond which we occasionally see some of the characters, is well suited, and Brian Nason has lit it simply but well. David Toser's costumes are evocative of time and place, and sound by Murmod, Inc. is well planned as well.

Gar O'Donnell may be more at risk than most of us, but the bridge he must cross between aspiration and reality is one with which we are all familiar. And Brian Friel reminds us of that well.

CurtainUp's review of the play in the Berkshires
CurtainUp's review of the Friel festival at Lincoln Center

Philadelphia, Here I Come!
by Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
with Paddy Croft, Michael FitzGerald, James Kennedy, Edwin C. Owens, Tessa Klein, James A. Stephens, Gil Rogers, Helena Carroll, John Leighton, Geddeth Smith, Tim Ruddy, Joe Berlangero, Darren Connolly and Leo Leyden
Set Design: David Raphel
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound Design: Murmod, Inc.
Wig and Hir Design: Robert-Charles Vallance Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd St. (6th/7th Avs.)
Telephone (212) 727-2737
From 7/14/05; opening 7/21/05 Tues - Sun @8, Sat - Sun @3; $45-50
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/20/05 performance
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