NEW YORK (AP) — Brian Friel's duo of one-act plays, "Lovers", is a sweet-and-sour mixture, rich with Friel's lyric dialogue and empathy for human foibles. He presents us with two likable, engaged couples at different stages of romance, then gives each relationship a dire outcome from relatively minor choices.
The Actors Company Theatre is celebrating its 20th anniversary season starting with a spirited revival of Friel's dark 1968 comedy that opened Thursday night off-Broadway at The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row. Drew Barr has inventively directed both plays on a split-level stage, setting a pleasing pace for his talented ensemble while enabling Friel's humor and pathos to shine through.
Both plays are set in the late 1960s in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic church ruled most people's lives. Through personal tales and colorful characters, Friel sympathetically illuminates the restrictions imposed on individuals by narrow-mindedness, stuffy tradition and organized religion.
"Winners," frequently performed on its own, begins lightly enough. Engaged 17-year-old high school students, pregnant Mag and studious Joe, expect to be happy together forever, although they have to grow up sooner than they originally expected.
On the upper level of the stage, the playful pair enjoy a beautiful, warm summer day, happily studying outdoors for final exams. They chat, argue a little, and eagerly make plans for their future and the baby. Joe is smart enough to see the constraints that lie ahead, but he adores Mag's exuberance and keeps most doubts to himself.
Their fate is foreshadowed by two somber downstage narrators, (James Riordan and Kati Brazda), who recite a timeline of the kids' activities that same day like an impartial inquest report. In contrast to that claustrophobic litany, Justine Salata is vivacious and lively as chattering Mag, joking and merry one minute, then falling into a dark mood like any scattered teenager. Cameron Scoggins is all gangly earnestness and boyish enthusiasm as the more practical Joe.
Salata and Cameron are completely believable as teenagers, and both perform evocative monologues so appealingly that we regret the looming tragedy even more acutely.
In the second play, "Losers," a 40-something engaged couple, Andy and Hanna, are forced to act like teenagers as they comically seek a little privacy in Hanna's bed-ridden mother's living room. Riordan is intense and funny as narrator Andy, ruefully reminiscing about their former shared passion and a long domestic battle for Hanna (Brazda) with his eventual mother-in-law.
Widowed and prayerful Mother, (a slyly funny Nora Chester), listens to the middle-aged courting couple's downstairs conversations with hawk ears. She constantly thwarts their intimate moments by summoning a furious Hanna with a loud bell whenever things get too quiet.
Brazda is quite effective as the frazzled, sexually pent-up Hanna. She and Riordan share a couple of perfectly timed farcical scenes, hastily trying to make love while he frenetically shouts poetry so her mother won't ring that bell. Cynthia Darlow is sweetly comedic as Mother's equally pious friend, Cissy.
But religion and tradition threaten Hanna's spark, and their romantic future is sealed by one wild moment when Andy overplays his hand and the "aul lady's" long game triumphs at last. The heartbreaking outcome for both couples is reflected in the stark, leafless black tree shadow towering up the back wall, part of Brett Banakis' clever set design.
Astute audience members will empathize with many all-too-human moments and sentiments from the lives of both couples.