Aoife Kelly and Phil
Gillen photos by Jeremy
By Ron Cohen
The course of
true love never did run smooth.
wasn’t big news circa 1598 when Shakespeare wrote that immortal line in his A
Midsummer Night’s Dream. And it certainly wasn’t any more astounding some
400 years later when the master Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) took
on the proposition in the two short plays being presented by Irish Repertory
Theatre under the banner Two by Friel.
Friel fleshed out the matter into two achingly beautiful scenarios, and they’re
given pretty much full justice as brought on stage in this intimate mounting in
Irish Rep’s minuscule but comfortable Studio Stage.
part of the program is Lovers: Winners. Originally, it was part of a
show succinctly entitled Lovers, made up of two separate playlets: Winners
and Losers. It premiered in Ireland in 1967 and came to Broadway in a Lincoln
Center production in 1968, picking up a Tony Award nomination for best play.
half of Two by Friel is The Yalta Game, which Friel wrote in
2001. It’s an adaptation of a well-known Anton Chekhov short story The Lady
with the Lap Dog. Such an adaptation was a natural for Friel, who is often
called the Irish Chekhov. The Irish Rep production marks the play’s New
In both parts
of Two by Friel, romantic love becomes entangled with external
circumstances, either, as in the first half, simply the unpredictability of
fate or, as in the second play, the conventions of society engrained in our
Winners centers on
two Northern Ireland teenagers. Mag is 17, and Joe is 17-1/2. Mag is also
pregnant with Joe’s child, and the pair will be married in three weeks. Joe,
who’s a studious type, has been expelled from school because of the dishonor he
has brought upon the school, his family and himself, but because of his mother’s
pleading, he will be allowed to take final exams to continue with his
On a fine
June morning, the two have come to a hilltop overlooking their town to study
for the exams. Joe often has his nose in a book, while Mag is garrulous,
talking about the scandalous and possibly not true happenings of their nun
teachers and various acquaintances. However, Joe can also talk up a storm when
he’s not studying, and fills his talk with colorful impersonations of his
One thing is
perfectly clear, however. The two are blissfully in love and pretty much ready
to face the future. Joe has already leased their apartment, even though it’s
next to a slaughterhouse, a fact he meets with good humor. He also seems to
have their marital finances pretty well figured out.
there are two other characters in the play, a more mature man and woman, simply
known as the Commentators. They sit on either side of the stage, and in a
rather impersonal mode, fill us in on various details from the weather to the
family histories of Mag and Joe. And about midway through the play, they begin
to intimate that later in the afternoon Mag and Joe borrowed a boat situated on
the town’s lakeshore for a ride around the lake. While the circumstances are
never fully explained, it’s a ride that proves fatal, with both bodies of the
young couple found and determined to have drowned.
knowledge that adds a sudden heart-rending pathos to the proceedings,
heightened by the vibrant, very-much alive performances of Phil Gillen as Joe
and Adife Kelly as Mag. Friel’s colorful writing sometimes becomes a bit
circuitous: Mag and Joe chat and gossip playfully, Joe urges Mag to settle down
and study, Joe loses his temper, and then they make up. Joe then loses his temper
again, and then they make up again. Nevertheless, the warmth and urgency of the
two performers, along with the finely shifting tempos of Conor Bagley’s
direction, keep us involved, while the objective manner rendered by the two
Commentators, portrayed by Jenny Leona and Aidan Redmond, add a chilling note.
It’s a stunning and heartfelt miniature of a play.
Redmond and Jenny Leona
Yalta Game, Leona and Redmond take center stage, and the scene shifts to
the Crimean resort town of Yalta. Redmond is Dmitry Gurov, an aging womanizer
and Moscow banker, spending holiday time away from his wife and family who
remain at home. He sits at a plaza café and plays “the Yalta game” imagining
the back stories of the people he sees. When a young woman with a tiny
Pomeranian dog captures his attention, he moves in on her. She is Anna
Sergeyevna, a married woman in her early twenties, whose husband, forty years
of age, we learn, has stayed home for work in their town of Pargolovo.
The dog, of
course, provides a reason to strike up conversation, and eventually a romantic
spark is ignited. But this is not just a holiday fling, and by the time Dmitry
returns to Moscow, Anna tells him, “It would have been better if we had never
met. Indeed it would. But we did meet and now my life can never be the same
As time moves
on, echoes of” “the Yalta game” kick in. The two begin to wonder if their
affair was strictly in their imaginations, but no, the passion and longing are
real. Dmitry travels to Pargolovo for a clandestine meeting, the two arrange
for sequestered, regular rendezvous in Moscow. They sense they are doing
something wrong, happiness and unhappiness intermingle, and finally the two are
haunted by the intimation of an ending. As Anna says in her final lines, “the
drawing to a close had already begun and we were now embarked on the most
complicated and most frightening and the most painful time of all.”
not spell out what that close will be, but it makes for a haunting mood as this
poetic love story comes to its dramaturgical end. Leona and Redmond give deeply
felt performances, adding to the captivating quality of Friel’s writing.
of Two by Friel are played out against Daniel Prosky’s fairly neutral
set: a series of gray squares mounted on what looks like a polished wood fence,
behind which thick bunches of shrubbery peek through. The somewhat contemporary
costuming by China Lee adds to the timeless feel of the production.
Bagley imbues Lovers: Winners with a more naturalistic aura. Joe carries
an overloaded book bag; he and Mag unwrap neatly wrapped sandwiches for lunch.
In contrast, The Yalta Game has a more theatrical tone, props are mimed,
even the Pomeranian, and the two actors stay in the same costumes, the same
garb they wore as the Commentators in Lovers: Winners, although Redmond
adds a summery looking sports coat.
This use of
costuming may be an attempt by Bagley to tie the two plays together, as if
somehow Anna and Dmitry are privy to the tragedy of Mag and Joe, and he makes
an even bolder attempt to do so at the show’s conclusion. What it is won’t be
revealed here, but it sort of detracts from the deeply moving conclusion of The
the only misstep in an affecting production, which once again finds Irish
Repertory Theatre glowingly living up to its mission of bringing Irish and
Irish-American works to the stage.
Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage
132 West 22nd
212 727 2737