Theatre Review: The Home Place
The Home Place
By Brian Friel
Off-Broadway—The Irish Repertory Theatre
November 24, 2017
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
The Irish proverb “God made time, but man made haste” is true generally and applies specifically to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Off-Broadway New York premiere of Brian Friel’s play The Home Place, currently running at the company’s pleasantly renovated permanent space on W. 22 St. The Rep is admirable in its attempt to put up this difficult 2005 play, but the restrictions brought on by Schedule and Economics has resulted in a rushed inattention to detail that makes the show falter.
For its part, The Home Place took a long while coming to New York. Friel’s last original work—he did a translation of Hedda Gabler in 2008—was first produced by the esteemed Gate Theater in Dublin in ’05, directed by Adrian Noble, starring Tom Courtenay. After a long run, it opened in London in 2007. Unlike Friel’s other major plays, including Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations, and Dancing At Lughnasa, this one had trouble making it in the U.S. There was a 2007 production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, directed by Friel’s frequent collaborator Joe Dowling, but it was another ten years before the Irish Rep took it on.
The reasons for this tardiness begin, perhaps, with the play’s story: set in 1878, in the fictional town of Ballybeg in the county of Donegal, often the site of Friel’s pieces, it centers on an estate owned by wealthy Anglo-Irish Christopher Gore, an older, sophisticated man of sensitivity, increasingly alienated from his Irish tenants, growing bitter and irate at the British lords who rent their land to them and employ them, but keep them near poverty. Gore is stunned when one of these Lords is found nearby, beaten to death. At the same time, he is in love with local Irishwoman Margaret O’Donnell, the beautiful, competent, and younger, manager of his estate; he is unaware that his own restless, erratic grown son David is Margaret’s lover. Gore’s conflict with the tenants, and within himself, intensifies when his cousin Richard, dabbling in anthropology, arrives to conduct experiments on the locals, measuring their heads and bodies to gather evidence for a study on racial determinism. Richard’s imperious nature, his biased research and condescending practices, bring the clash between cultures and economic disparities to a boil.
The unusual and arresting plot of The Home Place, based in part on fact, with a backdrop of the Home Rule movement of the late 19th century, may have seemed too European to gain an initial U.S. producer. But with its topic now coinciding with the income inequality issues shaking up America, the time may have finally seemed right. Friel, who died in 2015 at 86, wrote plays that contained both poignantly lyrical and bluntly prosaic exchanges, and there are colorful, gripping sections: a visit from Margaret’s father, who runs an accomplished local choir but whose loudly boisterous/drunken remembrances of beloved Irish poet Thomas Moore embarrass his daughter; Gore’s yearnings for Margaret, both mortified and impassioned; a threat from tough villager Con against Richard’s experiments; and details of the history of the area and the awkward connection between Irish and English living at close quarters, but at odds. The struggle of possessors vs. the dispossessed, the theme of our need for racial and economic predictability, a certainty of identity, place, and status, while the world and our relationship to it and each other is forever in flux, is eloquently stated by Friel’s characters.
But the play also seems sketchy; running an hour-forty five, one wishes there were more. Perhaps because of age, Friel glided over many of the relationships, emotions, and conflicts, causing the tale and interaction to fly before we take them in. (Or, maybe Friel kept it short because, as he was quoted in his obituary in London’s Guardian: “The NY attention span is now down to 2.7 minutes and the chances of holding an audience for 2.5 wordy hours in that city are slim.”) This leaves it up to the production to fill in the blanks.
And this is where the Rep has problems. Off-Broadway is beset by short work schedules and salary and staff constraints. Rehearsals are often only two to three weeks, sets and costumes can be limited, casts, typically paid in the low hundreds a week, are kept small. The Home Place, ambitious, with eleven characters, an indoor/outdoor locale, and complex historical plot, presents a test that only a bigger budget and organization can ace.
The smallish stage has trouble containing the Gore’s living room and backyard, compelling the show’s director, longtime Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore, to crunch the actors together, and have them wait awkwardly in the wings to make entrances. Performances of the leading roles suffer. As Gore, John Windsor-Cunningham handles the language with ingratiating ease and style, but is devoid of the deep feeling churning inside the landowner, and driving the play. Rachel Pickup’s Margaret is accomplished and attractive, but the honesty or sincerity or whatever it is that draws both father and son to her stays obscure. Ed Malone as son David and Christopher Randolph as anthropologist Richard tend to prototype. But again, lack of time is the apparent culprit. These are involved and intricate roles; only patient effort over a proper preparation period would nail the nuances.
This frustrating constraint is perhaps proven by the success of some of the performers in smaller roles. Robert Langdon Lloyd as Margaret’s father is touching in his rough-hewn poesy; Polly McKie brings a real charge of torment as a deprived mother and participant in the racial experiments; Johnny Hopkins has some of the best, most electric moments in the show as rebellious Con. Andrea Lynn Green is able to find heart and earthy humor in the larger supporting part of the practical-minded, sexy housekeeper Sally, Con’s secret lover.
But—meaning no offense—to quote an Englishman, Lord Chesterfield/Philip Dormer Stanhope: “Whoever is in a hurry shows that the thing he is about is too big for him.” Ultimately, what we don’t get in The Home Place is the meaning outside and between the sentences, beyond the words. Little physical moments—serving biscuits out on the terrace, cleaning up the inside room, even performing the bogus experiments—need to have a quality, a texture, all their own, yet relating to the locale and its people, to the past and present, harmony and dissonance of events and the characters’ response to them. The show gets the general outer core, but the inside specificity, the tendons and ligaments filling out the skeleton, have not been developed.
Look—this is easy for a critic to write. Having been involved in various ways with dozens of shows that operated on the budget and scale of this play, I know firsthand how hard it is to do. With an illustrious almost 30-year history, the Irish Repertory Theatre has bucked the odds to become one of New York’s most reliable, prolific, and beloved theater companies, presenting hundreds of premieres and revivals of the greatest Irish playwrights, meaning some of the greatest in the history of the world. It has a new balcony in its main theater, as well as a smaller studio and rehearsal space. It just brought back its popular adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, at the American Irish Historical Society, for a holiday run, and It’s A Wonderful Life, a revival of a radio-show version of the Capra film, is soon to open. In theater, as in life, time is the boss and eventually, your conqueror; rarely, your friend. No one beats Time, but the Irish Rep gives it a go.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. Earlier in 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.