nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 23, 2009
In Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Brian Friel's Aristocrats, a marvelously skilled cast of actors portray the life of an Irish Roman Catholic family reuniting at their home in Ballybeg Hall, in County Donegal, Ireland. This is a moving work, reminiscent of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in many ways, yet featuring its own gamut of complicated and distinctive characters.
The family is assembled because Claire is soon to be wed to a man far her senior. Everyone seems somewhat ambivalent about the affair, in that they rarely discuss it—except Claire who is, to say the least, hesitant. After the passing of their delirious patriarch, the family is forced to deal with the inevitable loss of their estate.
This play is deftly directed by Charlotte Moore; intelligently peppering tragic moments with comedic sensibilities, and creating dynamic shifts of energy. There is a stunning set by James Morgan. Although the frame of the set is chopped-up sepia-toned pictures of the estate, there remains a gratifyingly naturalistic feel to the environment generally.
Claire indefatigably plays Chopin on the piano throughout, while her brother Casimir broadcasts the title of each nocturne, waltz, etc., along with its particular nickname associated with events of the O'Donnell family. For example, he recalls the "Bedtime Waltz" being played by their mother to urge them off to sleep when they were little. Proclaiming the title is a feverish obsession for Casimir. He becomes extraordinarily distraught until he is able to recall it. John Keating gives a splendid performance in this role; communicating great depth using quirky stiffness and repetition. I found his monologue about realizing at a young age he would be a failure in life to be the most compelling part of a uniformly excellent production. The early suggestion by his brother-in-law Eamon that Casimir's wife and three children in Hamburg, Germany—whom he is constantly trying to reach on the phone—are potentially fictional creates a mist of tragedy and curiosity that hangs over his every moment. This same tragedy is perfectly embodied in his short, loud, tense squawk of a laugh.
Tom Hoffnung, similar to most of the audience, is an American observing the family and analyzing the phenomena particular to this odd sample of aristocratic life. Casimir is eager to tell him fond memories of the most famous figures of Ireland visiting Ballybeg. He recalls Yeats (a notable advocate of aristocracy over and against the mediocrity engendered by democracy) sitting on their sofa, staring with a hazy look of horror for three days straight. The past is held up as consisting of greatness, while there is evident mere idleness and palpable desperation in the present.
Orlagh Cassidy is a charming drunk as Alice, and as her working-class, also usually drunk husband Eamon, Ciaran O'Reilly has captivating warmth. Both of these great actors have an ease of performance, while maintaining sharpness in their energy, and the combination makes them irresistibly human.
The terrifying voice of the bedridden father barks through a baby monitor on the wall. The angry wails over the intercom about Judith, his primary caretaker, having betrayed the family, and the hushed occasional mentions of the fate of the matriarch, suggest a painful past that is brushed under the rug. Each character has a defining painful moment in the past that seems to dominate their present. Each actor carries this quiet desperation with real care and humanity.