If Irish life were simply about leprechauns, jigs and the wearin' o' the green, the playful revival of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" at the Roundabout might be more satisfying than it is.
But Brian Friel's play about a young Irishman dwelling on his cramped and dismal life the night before he embarks for America reflects a darker side of the Irish character. The Ballybeg Friel describes is a place of futility, dreary rowdiness and self-denial that is pathetic rather than ennobling.
Too little of this bleakness is apparent in the production Joe Dowling has directed. The play seems like a collection of droll vignettes of provincial life rather than a portrait of a young man battling to find out who he is and where he is going.
At the heart of the play is the young man's frustrating relationship with his father. Both are trapped by their inability to be open with one another. This is not uniquely Irish, but their emotional impasse is aggravated by an intensely Irish stubbornness.
As the father, Milo O'Shea conveys the infuriating small-mindedness of a man hopelessly muddled in routine but there is little suggestion of the torments or complexities that have made him embrace a life as predictable as a mechanical clock.
Friel's most inventive device in this 1964 play was having the character of the son, Gar, played by two men, one of whom gives us the surface Gar, the other everything seething underneath. Here the two Gars are so similar it seems a needless duplication of manpower. Jim True, the public Gar, rarely gives us a sense of a brooding figure unable to communicate what anguishes him. He is instead an affable dullardt, who might live a very pleasant life if he remained in Ballybeg.
As his alter ego, Robert Sean Leonard conveys abundant charm but there is too little sense of the pain beneath the sharp wit.
The strongest moments are with minor characters, especially Jarlath Conroy as a drunken schoolmaster Gar imagines might be his "real" father. Aideen O'Kelly is marvelous as the alcoholic aunt who invites him to America. Miriam Healy-Louie is touching as the girl Gar cannot muster the courage to marry. Leo Leyden is droll as a clergyman with an enthusiasm for checkers. Pauline Flanagan seems less assured than usual as the housekeeper who holds Gar's household together.
A trio of rowdies performs with vigor but even they seem, like much of the production, softened, as if not to antagonize the Irish Board of Trade.
Irish playwright Brian Friel's aching, plaintive classic, "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" - on its second Broadway coming - has proved again the honesty of its vision.
The play first opened in Dublin in 1964 and hit American shores two years later winning nearly universal accolades. Friel went on to win a Tony for "Dancing at Lughnasa."
Over the years, Ireland and America have changed mightily, but Friel's poignant tale of separation and unspoken love stays true as ever.
Directed by Joe Dowling, who has staged several other of Friel's works, the new production may be slightly less astounding, technically, than its predecessor.
Now, using two actors to play the 25-year-old hero, Gareth O'Donnell - Gareth in "public" and Gareth in "private" - seems not nearly so avant-garde as it did in 1966.
But the two Gars - played by Jim True (the public Gareth) and Robert Sean Leonard (the private Gareth) - still move this rich drama along in alternately great happy leaps and steady heartfelt strides.
"Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is set in the tiny Irish village of Ballybeg, the day before Gar is to fly off to America to live with his aunt and uncle.
His last day is also his last chance to close up old wounds with his father, whom Milo O'Shea portrays in a truly standout performance, with the stern and loving housekeeper who has raised him, played by Pauline Flanagan, with his addled but poetic schoolmaster, played by Jareth Conroy, and with his one-time sweetheart, played by Miriam Healy-Louie.
"Silence is the enemy!" private Gar taunts public Gar.
But sometimes the silence is comforting and familiar.
"Watch her carefully, every movement, every gesture, every little peculiarity: Keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you'll run over and over again," private tells public as he gazes about his stolid world.
In one remarkable scene, the elderly father's stooped and frail body leans over Gar's tattered suitcase, capturing the unspeakable sadness of losing the chance and words to say goodbye.
"We've gotten away in theater from this notion that the writer is at the center of our world..." Dowling said in a recent interview. "Every society needs its storytellers, and those storytellers tell us who we are."
"Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is worth listening to again and again.
In the vast category of dramas that explore the rifts between fathers and sons, Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is surely the most lyrical. Let others look back in remorse or anger. Mr. Friel chooses to sing.
Even as he is chronicling the inability of his characters, residents of a stultifyingly dull village called Ballybeg, to connect with one another, he is filling the stage with glorious words. The dialogue is as close to pure music as speech can get: rowdy, frolicsome and melancholy, by turns. This 1964 work established the Irish playwright as one of international stature; 30 years later, it seems no less fresh and vital.
Not all the music comes through in the revival that the Roundabout Theater Company is performing at the Criterion Center, although enough does to make the evening rewarding. The cast includes such trustworthy character actors as Milo O'Shea, Pauline Flanagan, Leo Leyden and Jarlath Conroy. The director Joe Dowling, an Irishman with a clear-eyed view of his countrymen, eschews easy sentimentality and the tendency of American directors to make Irish drama quainter than it really is. This is an admirably hard-nosed staging of a play that is rollicking on the surface only.
There is a drawback, though. A critical role, the very one most responsible for the flood of poetry, is uncertainly played by Robert Sean Leonard. That shouldn't be enough to keep you away, but it does explain why this production sometimes seems slow to achieve its full emotional potential.
Mr. Friel's hero, you may recall, is incarnated by two actors: one (Jim True) who portrays 25-year-old Gareth O'Donnell as the world sees him; the other (Mr. Leonard) who represents Gareth's inner self and expresses all the feelings and thoughts churning in his head. Since the play takes place the night before the young man is to leave Ballybeg and emigrate to far-off America, the inner Gareth is particularly busy, gathering final impressions, experiencing last-minute doubts, remembering what was both wonderful and terrible about growing up in an Irish backwater with no mother and an exasperatingly taciturn father.
The device allows Mr. Friel to create a particularly rich character, as diffident on the outside as he is excitable within. We are privy not only to what Gareth says, but also to what he wishes he had said. The events of the play are distinctly homely. At the prompting of the housekeeper who reared him (the wonderfully dry Ms. Flanagan), some of the local boys drop by to bid Gareth an awkward farewell. The broken-down schoolmaster (Mr. Conroy) uses the imminent departure of his former student as an occasion to put the touch on him.
Regular as clockwork, the priest (Mr. Leyden) shows up for his nightly game of checkers, while Gareth's girlfriend (Miriam Healy-Louie) actually gets away from him twice. The first time, depicted in a flashback, he lacks the nerve to ask for her hand. The second time, she's a married woman and, like everyone else, just wants to say her goodbyes. The inner Gareth is alert to it all, enlivening the commonplace with his sarcastic remarks, letting his imagination run wild or reaching out for the love he has craved for so long. He is the play's subtext made flesh, you could say.
Mr. Leonard is an attractive actor, and he handles the inner tumult with some versatility. Mr. True, however, is far and above the more authentic performer, even when he's doing little more than gazing off into space, a dreamy look on his flat and goofy face. As a result, the basic equation is out of whack: Mr. Leonard has most of the dazzling speeches, but Mr. True's reactions command the attention. Instead of two actors acting as one, you have two actors registering as two -- not exactly what is called for.
Still, the play's humor and humanity are mostly well served. It is Mr. Friel's gift to make ordinary people colorful, without falsifying their small and often petty natures. Gareth's father, for example, is a plodding shopkeeper and a man of few words (even fewer when he removes his teeth and sits down to a meal). The hurts and fears that might humanize him in his son's eyes are buried too deep to get out. By alluding to them ever so discreetly -- obliquely, in fact -- Mr. O'Shea gives one of his finest performances.
In what remains the play's most exquisite scene, Gareth tries a last time to banish the heavy silence that is as much a part of the family house as the plain wooden furniture. He has never forgotten a long-ago fishing trip he and his father took, the blue boat they fished from, and the ditty his father sang that rare and joyous day. If only his father remembered, too, maybe there would be no need to run off to America. The dull concentration with which Mr. O'Shea searches his past for the fugitive memory and the quiet desperation with which Mr. True awaits an answer are truly rending.
So is Aideen O'Kelly, who crops up in another flashback, as Gareth's blowsy aunt from Philadelphia on a sentimental trip to the auld sod. Just when you're ready to dismiss her as a loud and maudlin drunk, Ms. O'Kelly suddenly lets you see the depths of the woman's loneliness and her aching need to have a child she can call her own, even if that child has to be her dead sister's. The performance is hilarious. Then it catches you in the throat. Mr. Friel, of course, is behind the quick change. He understands perfectly the ways the heart leaps and lurches. While he has written other plays every bit as observant as "Philadelphia, Here I Come!," I'm not sure he has given us any that are more so.
Officially, the Roundabout production opens the Broadway season. But it also signals what may well be shaping up as an unofficial festival of Mr. Friel plays. "Translations," his 1980 drama about the efforts of the British in the 19th century to impose English names and customs on the peasantry of Ballybeg, is scheduled for a Broadway production in March. Meanwhile, rumors are afloat that Mr. Friel's latest drama, "Molly Sweeney," already a big hit in Dublin, will also have an American hearing soon.
The New York theater could hardly do better. The language in Mr. Friel's plays is as beautiful as any being spoken on a stage today. More important, at a time when the most thrilling pictures seem to be the work of set designers with princely budgets, he stands as a salutary reminder that the most evocative pictures are painted by words. That's not to minimize John Lee Beatty's set, eloquent in its plainness, or Christopher Akerlind's lighting. "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is lovely to look at.
But it's lovelier to hear. Go, listen and see for yourself.
With Brian Friel's new "Molly Sweeney" opening to acclaim in Dublin, the Roundabout Theater Company does Broadway a service by reminding us of the playwright's rich beginnings. Any production of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is only as successful as its attempts to convey, as one character puts it, "this loneliness, this groping," that traps Friel's endearing characters. By that or any other standard, the Roundabout production is a fine revival.
As well it should be, directed as it is by longtime Friel collaborator Joe Dowling. The former artistic director of Dublin's Abbey and Gaiety theaters, Dowling steers a crack ensemble through Friel's heartbreaking Gaelic terrain. "Philadelphia" is one more notch in the Roundabout's growing reputation as Broadway's most consistent provider of quality fare. First produced in 1964, "Philadelphia" is an early glimpse into the author's oft-revisited fictional Irish village of Ballybeg. Set in the early 1960s, the play traces the final evening and morning of young Gareth O'Donnell's life in his native land: He's heading for Philadelphia, in part to escape a stifling homelife with his cold, seemingly unloving father, S.B. O'Donnell (Milo O'Shea).
But leaving doesn't come without pain and trepidation. The 25-year-old Gareth must say goodbye, probably forever, to Madge (Pauline Flanagan), the beloved housekeeper who helped raise him, and Kate (Miriam Healy-Louie), the girl he loved and lost.
It doesn't help that he's moving to America at the invitation of an aunt (Aideen O'Kelly) he hardly knows, having seen her only once, and at her drunken worst.
But the tie that binds the tightest is the boy's unfinished business with his emotionally stingy father, an old man with "dead eyes and a flat face."
If the man would only break through the household's numbing predictability by saying something honest and caring, Gar just might be persuaded to stay. In the end he leaves, "but perhaps with doubts."
Actually, Gar is nothing if not filled with doubts and conflict. And here is where Friel works what can either be theatrical magic or gimmick. Two actors play the character, one the "public" Gar and one the "private." They debate, taunt and console one another, the private Gar giving voice to the proud, wounded boy's true feelings.
At the Roundabout, the device comes close to magic, what with the casting of Jim True as the public Gar and Robert Sean Leonard as the private. Neither of these charming, garrulous performers hits a false note in their emotional pax de deux, nailing the restless ambition of youth, the terror of the unknown and a young man's childlike longing for love.
Equally fine is Flanagan as the loving Madge and O'Shea as the gruff father. O'Kelly all but steals the second act as the drunken, pitiful Aunt Lizzy, turning what verges on stereotype into poignance. Rest of the cast, as various villagers and visitors, rounds out a terrific ensemble.
Played against John Lee Beatty's convincingly rustic country house set, Dowling finds the delicate blend of exuberance and yearning that marks much of Friel's work, even if "Philadelphia" is short on the poetry that would lift later Ballybeg excursions like "Dancing at Lughnasa."
By now, there's a certain obviousness in the relationship between father and son detailed here, and some might even find the goings-on a tad maudlin. But few won't be moved by the two Gars catching their last glimpse of the old housekeeper, or feel the frustration of possible connections missed.