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If it's Ballybeg, then, for sure, it's a play by Brian Friel. And in Give Me Your Answer, Do!, now playing at the Roundabout Theatre, Friel takes on the risky and mysterious subject matter of the act of writing and his characters' dependency on it for their livelihood. Music quietly governs much of the story's aesthetics and direction. The acting is, on the whole, wonderful and intelligent. Friel's generosity in using an abundance of eloquent sentences keeps this moody and successful play excellent, unflinching, and surprising.

Tom is married to Daisy (no Buchanans here--all Connolly). Forty-something, the couple has a daughter named Bridget, whose unnamed illness renders her perpetually mute, barely ambulatory, and hospitalized. The play starts with pony-tailed Tom visiting 22 year-old Bridget. His entertaining narrations of the family's current events fails to alter her behavior. We, though, learn that Daisy's parents are visiting the couple--her father fresh out of prison for theft--and that friends, the Fitzmaurices, will arrive that afternoon, a Tuesday, for lunch. The real drama hovers around the pending decision of a fifth visitor, David Knight, a representative from the library of a Texas university interested in forming an archive of Irish writers. Should Knight decide that Tom's complete writings are worthy, then the university will dispense to Tom and Daisy a sum of money, hopefully as much as the Fitzmaurices previously received. Tom tells his silent daughter that her mother is well, and that he's finally finished the novel he's been working on for five years. Tom's departing words include the fact that he'll be back to see her the following Tuesday, as usual.

The curtain closes on the grim basement room of Bridget, and re-opens to the Connolly's backyard patio, the attractive, shabby gentility of moss-covered walls and pavement, and casually placed flower pots. Daisy, smoking and listening to music, doesn't disabuse the assertive David Knight of his observation, that the music playing is by Schumann. She knows it's Mendelssohn. Tom arrives, bellows a quote, and immediately quizzes David on the quote's source. Daisy, sharp-tongued like all the female characters, scolds Tom for his annoying habit. In fact, pettiness and failings happily mark all the characters. When David leaves the room, Daisy, portrayed by the convincing, passionate, and superb Kate Burton, reminds Tom that he hasn't published a thing in seven years, that his current novel isn't close to being done, that the bills are stacking up, and that he should show David the two secret manuscripts written years ago but shown only to her. Tom must decide on disclosing the secret manuscripts that day since David is leaving shortly. Friel's script also establishes the facts that Daisy drinks too much, that she never visits her daughter, and that Tom is a fine, literary writer while the more famous, well-to-do Garrett Fitzmaurice regularly publishes humdrum, commercial works.

Soon Daisy's parents and the Fitzmaurices enter; a set of smoldering, bitter comments between different characters ensue. The play's events take course over a day. In lesser hands, Daisy's constantly criticizing mother, Maggie, also would not utter the perfectly timed and pleasant sentence, "You've got great gooseberries out there and your quince are beginning to fall." More often than not, Daisy's semi-tragic personality is revealed in her typical response to her mother's barbs, such as "You hardly ever phone. You never write." Daisy agrees, "I'm useless." Joel Grey is stupendous as Daisy's father, Jack Donovan, a spritely, dapper man who is a retired music-hall pianist. Grey's deft touch almost constantly infuses levity into the scenes darkening with feuding couples and cruel comments; on a regular basis, an old song wafts downstage and Maggie and her father dance and sing together, in an act of pure showmanship on Friel's part. Tom, beautifully played by John Glover, recedes for much of the play's action, and then very much appears and dominates the ending. An outstanding and reassuring performance by Gawn Grainger as the florid Garret Fitzmaurice is yet another reason to see Give Me Your Answer, Do!

Friel's extraordinary talent means that for two-and-a-half hours he offers the audience not only the well-fashioned feats of witty, complicated characters pushing forward in their lives, but also the connection of these characters to universal, philosophical inquiries. That Ireland's most prominent playwright can do this will shock no one. That Friel, closing in on 40 years of seeing his prodigious output of plays being produced, continues to brood on, play with, and illustrate the contradictions he finds testifies to the singular, unsentimental identity his oeuvre is acquiring.

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