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The Irish Rep presents an extremely uneven production of Brian Friel's Chekhovian drama about an Irish family in the 1970s.

Ciaran O'Reilly and Orlagh Cassidy in Aristocrats
(© Carol Rosegg)
Due to its unimaginative direction and uneven performances, The Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Brian Friel's rich, layered Chekhovian drama Aristocrats is rarely up to the task of the material.

First seen here in 1989, the play is set in the mid-1970s at Ballybeg Hall, the O'Donnell family's decaying Donegal mansion that we're told once welcomed the likes of Yeats and O'Casey. Using the device of a visiting American professor (Rufus Collins) who is studying "the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland" -- the transparency of which is the play's only serious disappointment -- Friel observes the family on the occasion of a weekend that begins with preparations for the wedding of the youngest daughter Clare (Laura Odeh) but ends with decidedly sadder business.

In addition to Clare, the house remains home to older sister Judith (Lynn Hawley) and their ailing father and mostly silent uncle (both played by Geddeth Smith), while family helper Willie Diver (Sean Gormley) is constantly on hand. Home for the wedding are eccentric brother Casimir (John Keating), alcoholic sister Alice (Orlagh Cassidy), and her husband -- and one time local resident -- Eamon (Ciaran O'Reilly).

The beauty of the play, mined from the same rich thematic soil as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, is in the concise rendering of its characters and the collective portrait that Friel incrementally and delicately creates. In depicting the wistful, mostly unhappy reunion of the once-powerful clan, Friel laments the disappearing way of life for his characters and the end of an era for the Irish social class they represent. These are a people for whom the installation of an intercom in the house is the source of anxiety, an intrusion of the modern on their antique, isolated lifestyle.

Unfortunately, Charlotte Moore's production rarely shows Friel's play to advantage. The actors are asked to overcome not only the usual challenges of the theatre's playing area, with audience on two sides, but also a problematic, cheap-looking set (by James Morgan), which further limits staging and undercuts the play's description of the manor at every turn. It's a losing battle to summon up the feeling of a grand hall in disrepair when the lawn looks plastic and the library's bookshelves are represented with wallpaper.

The onus is therefore entirely on the ensemble to pull together and sound the play's notes of melancholy and gentle wit, but the performers are only occasionally successful as a cohesive unit. Generally, the actresses fare better than the actors. As Clare, who for a good deal of the play is heard offstage practicing Chopin at the piano, Odeh does fine work with the transition from childish escapism to clear piercing moments of despair. As Judith, Hawley brings the needed gravity to her second act scenes, which lay plain the family's state of affairs. And as the unhappy if quick-quipping Alice, whose life and fortunes are no longer tied to the house, Cassidy brings some welcome spice to an often-bland production.