TACT (The Actors’ Company Theatre) has put together a fine cast to breathe life into Brian Friel’s Lovers which had a decent 150 performance run at the Music Box and the Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center in 1968. It was then a vehicle for very popular Art Carney, who starred in Winners and Losers, the two one act plays that constitute the one for which it is titled.
Carney’s involvement made it more of an event, particularly since Carney played the Narrator in the first piece, and the leading character in the second. It was lavishly produced, with two very fitting sets by William Rittman.
TACT has re-conceived its physical production, with a set by Brett J. Banakis that does not help. Designed so that the two narrators are given far more prominence than the principals who act out the first act story high up on a platform requires that you put your neck out of joint by craning it upwards, and because the sight lines are limited, the 2 actors involved must play most of it dangerously close to the cliff that towers over the narrators below.
The narrators, in turn, are plunked down in a bedroom with a diagonal wallpapered wall and a bed looming at stage right, sitting upright in two chairs behind two standing microphones. In the second act, which is the second play, we are supposed to be in the home of Hanna and her bedridden Mother, (hence the bed on stage), but now we are asked to believe that Mother’s room is upstairs, where in fact it is downstairs, because we are in the same set used for the first play. Again, the actors in the living room on the platform in the sky, must make do with one sofa and one lamp, and again they must play all their scenes twelve feet off the stage floor, occasionally coming perilously close to the cliff that would force them right into a plaster cast.
I think this was all misguided, so I can only blame the director Drew Barr as well as the designer Mr. Banakis. For the cast is exemplary, with one exception. I hadn’t seen Cameron Scoggins before, and he’s one to watch. As the 17 year old lover in the first play, Winners, he has all the charisma and intelligence and looks of a young Montgomery Clift, he manages to convey the confusions and frustrations and aspirations of his young “Joe” whose circumstances are forcing him to become adult far too quickly.
His vis-a-vis is played by Justine Salata as though she’d had no direction at all. Her attack on the role of the also 17 year old Mag, pregnant by Joe long before she’s ready for motherhood, is so brave and bold that it’s unfortunate she hasn’t been helped to soften her work just a bit. It’s as though we’re seeing a performance that is early on in rehearsal, one that hasn’t yet been honed and shaped into a proper one. Her outbursts are so hysterical, they distance us from her, and I’m certain that’s not what Friel intended.
Scoggins on the other hand, manages to convey the full spectrum of emotion from concentration to his studies (the two are on a hillside to spend an afternoon cramming for high school exams together) to boredom or irritation to fury. The writing of these two characters is rich and truthful, but I found only Scoggins managing to engage me. One was left to wonder what it was in Mag as played at full throttle by Ms. Salata that attracted him enough to tell us that he desperately loves her. Because in the end, these two are called “winners” only because they manage to escape a life tied to each other. I won’t tell you how, but the road Friel has them travel seems the right one and the play, as a piece of play writing, moved me mightily.
The second half, Losers, introduces us to Andy and Hanna, a young middle aged couple who are desperate to marry, frustrated only by Hanna’s bedridden Mother, who is determined not to lose her daughter, on whom she totally depends for everything . Mother has a cowbell at her side in bed, and she rings it at all the wrong times making Andy’s courtship of Hanna nigh on to impossible. Hysterically funny at times, the play also sweeps us up in its dramatic arc to a wild climax which is as black as black comedy can be, and the four pros who play it dive right in and deliver.
Kati Brazda joins James Riordan, Cynthia Darlow and Nora Chester in a fight that no one can totally win. Riordan has made Andy such a warm and lovable character that we root for him, but Mr. Friel has other plans for him, and he brings the play to a conclusion more bitter than sweet. Here director Drew Barr has a surer hand, and lumbered as he is by the very bizarre set on two levels, he manages to use the space well, and to control the vibrant performances these four excellent actors deliver. Riordan, in the Carney role, has everything under control. He’s comfortable in the period clothes, he’s got the Northern Ireland accent down pat, and he’s able to be sinister and commanding one minute, and the oaf complete with pratfalls the next. A lovely performance that drives this family comedy/drama from start to finish.
I look forward to Happy Birthday by Anita Loos, this outfit’s spring offering. It’s a never revived Broadway hit which served Helen Hayes for over 500 performances in 1946. I’m certain TACT will come up with a cast of character actors who will send it soaring. Based on their casting this season and last, we have good cause to be hopeful.
The Actors Company Theatre production of Lovers by Brian Friel runs thru October 20, 2012 at the Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
Richard Seff podcasts: