by Harvey Perr
now playing on Broadway at the Biltmore
Since Garry Hynes directed the heroically rapturous “DruidSynge,” the complete oeuvre of John Millington Synge, the great playwright who raised Irish conversation to poetic heights (an event that turned out to be one of last year’s most memorable theatrical experiences), and since she previously introduced us to the work of Martin McDonagh, who has such wild lyrical fun with the idiosyncrasies of stage Irish, then it would seem that she would be the perfect choice to direct the Broadway revival of Brian Friel’s “Translations,” a play which is, after all, about (primarily but not exclusively) language. It is, therefore, difficult to understand why she has not molded this production into any real shape; why she has not, in fact, made the play do what it demands to do: sing.
In fairness, there is a scene after the evening’s single intermission in which an English soldier, nicely played by Chandler Williams, enamored of Irish culture and its language, and, in particular, enamored of a young Irish maiden (in the person of a radiant Susan Lynch), tries to communicate with her (and she with him) and, even though they manage a few words of Gaelic, find that they can communicate without language altogether. We sense in this scene both the ordinary – their romantic and comic groping towards the human connection that is at the heart of Friel’s play – and the magic that language would make possible for them . This scene, played here as the beginning of Act III, was originally written as the tail end of Act II, and the symmetry of the play has been mangled by its being separated from its original act. The anticipation of what follows this scene is dissipated by its flowing directly into the third act, and the mystery of why the English soldier disappears without making good on his romantic promises loses its impact.
In this age of Audience Attention Span Deficiency, where conventional three-act plays of the past must be condensed into plays with one intermission, the choice of where the break should come is often expedient rather than artistic, as this reviewer feels is the case here. We are not seeing the play as the author envisioned it.
In order for this play to really work as it should, the Irish actors should be speaking in Gaelic and the English actors in English. Of course, then we wouldn’t understand the play, so the language Friel has created for his Irish characters is the lyrical brogue of contemporary Irish as a stand-in for ‘the Irish.’ In the play’s final moments, confusion is manifest because it is ‘the Irish’ that should be grand, not the oratorical English we hear.
When the play – which takes place in Baile Baeg in County Donegal in 1833, when the potato famine was destroying the lives of so many Irish peasants, and British colonialization was beginning to take hold – was first produced in 1980, it was as potent a political statement as it was a human document, relating as it does the loss of language to the loss of community. The most moving demonstration of this theme can be found in the character of a speech-impaired young woman who grapples with the English language, only to be unable to say the words she has learned when she needs them the most.
One of the reasons this production doesn’t work is that the play doesn’t really make that profound connection, historical and yet universal, and feels as if it is inhabited not by real flesh and blood people, but by actors – and most of them journeyman actors at that – who seem to resist any attempt to create a sense of reality – the heartbreaking humanity that lies at the core of the play – while at the same time soaring to a higher level of enhanced language. Because there is no real life on stage, there is subsequently no music. Where Ms. Hynes does succeed is in the atmosphere she creates, thanks largely to the splendid set design by Francis O’Connor and the subtle lighting design of Davy Cunningham; they have collaborated with Ms. Hynes before and seem to understand what she is after. But in the end, there is a stubborn still-born quality to the evening and it is sometimes very hard to understand why this play is considered by many as Brian Friel’s masterpiece. The play, one strongly suspects, deserves better. Until then, this reviewer withholds judgment on the play itself.