When Irish playwright Brian Friel died in 2015, he left behind a canon filled with classics. Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer, and Translations, among others, have become staples of world drama and found homes on and off-Broadway. Friel's final original piece, The Home Place, premiered in 2005 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin before transferring to the West End and is only now receiving its New York premiere via the Irish Repertory Theatre. While audiences may spiritually find it a fitting way to pay tribute to an important career, this particular play doesn't stand up to his past works.
The setting is Ballybeg in County Donegal, the fictional setting of so many of Friel's plays, in 1878. An English landholder was recently murdered in a brutal fashion, and the rumblings of the Land War — when tenant farmers rose up against their property owners — are starting to simmer. Over the course of a single day, Protestant landowner Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) finds himself trapped in the middle of two dangerous situations.
Christopher's anthropologist cousin, Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph), is visiting him to study the "natives" of the region. In the name of science, Dr. Gore measures the physical characteristics of their craniums in the hopes of proving that the Irish are genetically inferior to the English. As tension rises in the town, one of the locals, Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins), is determined to put an end to such animalistic disrespect.
Meanwhile, Christopher is in the middle of an unrequited love triangle. He fancies his housekeeper, Margaret (Rachel Pickup), but so does his son, David (Ed Malone). Margaret, however, is being coy about whose affection she reciprocates.
Charlotte Moore, Irish Rep's artistic director, who has helmed lovely productions of Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, Aristocrats, and Molly Sweeney, is more at odds directing this play. Her production looks beautiful — David Toser's period costumes are extravagant, Michael Gottlieb's lighting is crisp, and James Noone's set is lush, green, and homey — but is markedly untidy when it comes to finding a dramatic arc for her actors. As a result, most of the central performances are lost in the loquacious terrain of Friel's script, though Pickup's headstrong portrayal of Margaret stands above the fray. Appealing comedic supporting turns by Robert Langdon Lloyd and Logan Riley Bruner fare better, and Moore guides them with a surer directorial hand.
There's an undoubtedly timely message to The Home Place, one that bluntly states its thesis with this line of dialogue: "The doomed nexus of those who believe they are the possessors and those who believe they are the dispossessed" is just as relevant now, in a time that's being dubbed "the last gasp of the patriarchy," where racial and gender supremacy has once again started to rear its ugly head, as in the era of tenant farmers and landed gentry.
But only in fits and starts does the play find the right focus, spending simultaneously too much and too little time on its dueling storylines, never hitting the right balance of either. For the Friel completist, though, it's nice to see his swan song, even if it leaves you a little wistful for his earlier works.
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