You know you’re in trouble when the academics come poking around, eager to record every colorful detail before the whole lot of you disappears into obscurity. This must certainly be the thought nagging several members of the O’Donnell clan, the family of downwardly mobile Irish Catholic elites in Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, a ho-hum family drama now receiving a serviceable revival at Irish Repertory Theatre.
The academic in question is Tom (Roger Dominic Casey), who has embedded himself at Ballybeg Hall, the seat of an important jurist (Colin Lane). It’s the mid-1970s and the judge has mostly slipped into senility, cared for by his eldest daughter Judith (Danielle Ryan) and his piano-playing youngest, Claire (Meg Hennessy). Tom is interested in the cultural impact of Ireland’s Catholic upper crust, when so many of the “big houses” of the country were occupied by Protestants. It’s an ideal time to come around, as two of his honor’s children have returned for the occasion of Claire’s wedding to a significantly older widower.
Alice (Sarah Street) lives in a basement flat in London with her husband Eamon (Tim Ruddy), who works as a probation officer. Casimir (Tom Holcomb), who was meant to carry on the family’s proud legal tradition, works in a sausage factory in Hamburg. He’s married to a German woman named Helga whom none of them have met, and they have three sons: Herbert, Hans, and Heinrich. Acidly, Eamon remarks, “It has the authentic ring of phony fiction, hasn’t it?”
And indeed, it’s Casimir who seems to be putting on the biggest show for Tom, wistfully recalling cozy evenings with Yeats and grand parties in Vienna attended by his grandfather, who rubbed shoulders with Liszt and Balzac. Holcomb exhibits the animated, singsong insistence of a classic Irish fabulist as he plays it up for a camera that isn’t even there. He’s the Little Edie of this Gaelic Grey Gardens.
Playing the role of both Maysles brothers, Tom is a flimsy excuse for blunt exposition as we are introduced to a parade of offstage relations, living and dead, who amble in one ear and out the other (thank God for the published script). There are grudges and resentments, mostly exhumed by Eamon, an amateur historian of the O’Donnells who naturally adopts the most adversarial attitude toward with the visiting scholar (prickly and loquacious, Ruddy convincingly envelops his portrayal of Eamon in the stench of thwarted potential). Alice is an alcoholic, her father is a fading tyrant who has clearly left Casimir suffering from PTSD, and her Uncle George (also Lane in a nifty bit of double-casting) refuses to speak a word to anyone. Of the whole bunch, you’d only ever want to spend any time with the local handyman, Willie (an affable Shane McNaughton sporting a period-appropriate mane).
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to draw great drama from a cast of unlikable characters. Aristocrats has been favorably compared to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in its melancholic look at the remains of a bygone way of life. But missing from this story is a compelling Lopakhin, an ambitious young capitalist destined to overthrow this old guard and make a fortune sheltering money for Apple and other multinational corporations. Without him, we’re left with no one to root for — or jeer, if you happen to be a downwardly mobile elite yourself.
Director Charlotte Moore (longtime artistic director of Irish Rep) helmed a production of Aristocrats in 2009 that our critic described as “unimaginative” and “uneven.” I didn’t see that staging, but Moore’s work is perfectly even here, taking place on a sightly (if physically confusing) indoor-outdoor set by Charlie Corcoran, handsomely lit by Michael Gottlieb. David Toser’s costumes give us both a sense of period as well as character. And much of the production is underscored by the tinkle of Chopin wafting from inside the house (sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab) so at least we have something interesting to listen to as two hours, 15 minutes of our lives disappear.
The problem really is with Friel’s script, which expends a great deal of words to say very little. As soon as we seem to be reaching a boil, the forces of genteel repression rush in to extinguish the flame like so much sand tossed from an antique vase. It may be an authentic representation of the Catholic upper class, but as drama it’s deadly.