The late Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) could be sadly pessimistic, a quality exhibited in each of the two plays that make up the program at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Even while we are seeing romantic behavior, by youths in one play and adulterers in love in the other, Frier provides grim undercurrents by skillful constructions.
In the opener, “Lovers: Winners,” a revival, young lovers intending to marry, played by Phil Gillen as Joe and Aoifey Kelly as Mag, are shown both fawning on each other and arguing as they loll near the sea. Mag is pregnant.
Meanwhile, at each side of the stage, there are narrations being read, one by Aidan Redmond, the other by Jenny Leona, the two combining an overview of the youthful relationship, telling of how the bodies of Joe and Mag were ultimately found washed ashore and pondering the mystery of what happened to them.
Although director Conor Bagley directs the play well from the perspective of expressing the drama, he needs to also think more about the audience watching it. Much of the talk occurs while the couple are lying about on the stage. In this compact basement Studio Theatre of the Irish Rep, it is a struggle to see above audience heads to take in the action occurring so low. It would have made more sense to position the actors higher, on a sandy or grassy hill, for example. Despite a good seat, I had to shift about almost constantly to even partially see the actors for much of their chatting.
The second play, “The Yalta Game,” based on a Chekhov story, is a New York premiere, also directed by Bagley. This was much more enjoyable, including for experiencing the oddity of the Irish Friel writing about Russians. The tale involves Redmond as Dmitry Gurov, a congenial married Russian who likes to muse about the types of people he observes while alone in Yalta. He is intrigued when he sees Leona as Anna Sergeyevna, an attractive married woman, who is in Yalta without her husband.
Dmitri manages to strike up a conversation with Anna, and they enjoy each other’s company. After they spend a night together, she is remorseful. They part with her vow never to see him again, and yet he eventually turns up. Meanwhile, each has nursed passionate memories of the other, and while their passion is renewed, an eventual parting is sadly inevitable—a love story that must end despite the depth of feelings in view of marital commitments.
Redmond and Leona are delightful in their roles, and Friel has the characters on occasion effectively relating their feelings directly to the audience. At the curtain call they are joined by Gillen and Kelly sitting in the boat that brought their characters to their fateful end. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed November 18, 2018.