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September 28, 2012

TT: Beautiful losers

My Wall Street Journal drama column is about two New York productions, an off-Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Lovers and the New York premiere of a new English-language version of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Here's an excerpt.

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If life were fair, Brian Friel, the foremost living playwright in the English-speaking world, would have won a Nobel Prize long ago. Instead he labors in comparative obscurity, loved and respected by all who care about theater but mostly unknown to the American public at large....

The good news is that two of Mr. Friel's best plays are being done Off Broadway this fall. Not only will the Irish Rep be putting on "The Freedom of the City" in October, but TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, which covered itself in glory with its revival last season of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," is now presenting the very first professional staging of "Lovers" to be seen in New York since the play received its Broadway premiere in 1968.

2012-Lovers-16.jpg"Lovers" is a double bill of dark romantic comedies that take the grimmest possible view of love and its discontents. In "Winners," we meet Mag and Joe (Justine Salata and Cameron Scoggins), a starry-eyed teenage couple whose fast-approaching marriage is about to be short-circuited by the uncaring hand of fate. "Losers," by contrast, is a bitter little farce about a pair of middle-aged lovers (Kati Brazda and James Riordan) whose romance runs aground on the cold, hard shoal of Irish Catholicism at its most priggish.

Part of Mr. Friel's genius lies in the seamlessness with which he integrates more or less straightforward realism and narrator-driven presentationalism. "Winners" is a prime example of his technique at its most supple. In between glimpses of the young lovers at play, we hear from a two-person Greek chorus (played by Ms. Brazda and Mr. Riordan) who describe the life of their village in the dispassionate, "Dragnet"-like tones of a police report....

Drew Barr has directed "Lovers" with the deceptive simplicity of a fable. The impact of his staging is heightened by Brett J. Banakis' uncomplicated set, a wall covered with shabby wallpaper that slashes diagonally across the stage like a scar....

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's "new version" of "An Enemy of the People" is yet another attempt to update Henrik Ibsen's smug 1882 satire about a visionary doctor (Boyd Gaines) who becomes a pariah when he makes a discovery that threatens to gut the economy of the hypocritical small town in which he lives. (Yes, the doctor is a self-portrait of the playwright as genius.) Unlike Arthur Miller, whose squashily high-minded 1950 adaptation is the form in which "An Enemy of the People" is best known to American audiences, Ms. Lenkiewicz has made no attempt to paper over the play's contemptuous anti-populism. She has, however, cut the script ruthlessly, modernized Ibsen's language with four-letter words and ramped up the humor (such as it is) to the point of cartoonishness....

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Read the whole thing here.

A trailer for Lovers:

Posted September 28, 2012 12:00 AM

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