As The Actors Company Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s lovely and under-produced LOVERS opens, an angsty Maggie (Justine Salata) appears in her sweater and ankle-length Catholic school skirt to put on an old record. The raw snarl of a young Van Morrison emerges from the speakers, and Maggie fixes her hair and outfit while giving a lustful stare at the turntable, the Northern Irish Catholic girl invigorated by her Protestant countryman’s rock & roll abandon. It is a moment encapsulating many of this production’s most salient themes: love, lust, desire, and the uncertain promises of transient freedom bound up in all three.
LOVERS is in fact made up of two distinct but thematically connected one-acts. The first, WINNERS, is about the burgeoning life of a teenage couple on the precipice of marriage, and the second, LOSERS, explores the struggles of a newly dating forty-something couple to carve out a space for courtship under the watchful presence of an aging and pious mother. While the plays are separated by character and plot, they share in LOVERS’s overarching investigation of the possibility of happiness within the confines of marriage, religion, and community. Because Friel will be Friel, idylls are never all that idyllic, and romances are never all that romantic, but this play contains elements of both: it is a sweet, soulful, and occasionally heartbreaking glimpse into the turbulent voyage of shared existence.
Opening the evening, WINNERS takes place on a hot summer morning as Maggie meets her fiancé Joe (Cameron Scoggins) on a hilltop overlooking their hometown so that they might study together for coming exams. The pair are seventeen, and due to be married in three weeks because Maggie is pregnant. Joe is determined to hit the books hard while Maggie—a vigorously chatty daydreamer—struggles to reign in her own attention span on such a lovely day with such lovely occasions of marriage and childbirth on the horizon. Over the course of the morning the young couple cycles through the emotional life of an entire marriage, experiencing fits of anger, puppy love, annoyance, lust, and glimpses of genuinely shared adoration that suggest a relationship strong enough to weather tribulations.
But a mystery hangs over the proceedings. Downstage, unseen or heard by Joe and Maggie, are two emotionless commentators, billed only as Man and Woman, occasionally reading from bound reports about Joe and Maggie’s day on the hilltop. At the play’s opening, Man and Woman seem to be narrating the lovers’ day, but soon their narrative moves past the events we see Joe and Maggie experiencing and into a future related in the past tense. These two pairs of characters are never aware of each other, but the play’s structure weaves their narratives together in such a way to add drama to a seemingly free-spirited summer day on a hilltop.
The second one-act, LOSERS, shows us another couple on the precipice of romance, the middle-aged Andy and Hanna (James Riordan and Kati Brazda, pulling double duty as WINNERS’s Man and Woman). Hanna, whose husband has recently died, lives at home to care for her ailing mother, while awkward bachelor Andy stumbles through the customs of courtship. Perhaps paradoxically, this relationship is far more vivacious than that of Joe and Maggie, as the two adults do their best to steal time on the couch for vigorous “courting,” as Andy puts it with a knowing innuendo as he narrates the play’s story.
The problem is that they are often interrupted by the service bell of Hanna’s bedridden mother Cissy (Cynthia Darlow), whom they suspect rings only to thwart their “courting,” and her demands of a nightly rosary session. Tension builds as Hanna and Andy struggle, individually and collectively, to cope with the pressures Cissy’s demands places on their relationship. Cissy’s death would of course be the easy escape that LOSERS never grants these two, and we watch as the oppressive presence of the pious mother in the room upstairs exacts varying degrees of psychological turmoil on the characters and their fledgling relationship.
Lively and vigorous performances run throughout this production, suggesting an eagerness for the beauty and joy promised, however insincerely, by romance. Salata’s Maggie dominates WINNERS with her seemingly endless supply of gab, at once deeply personal and mindlessly ephemeral. Studious Joe becomes occasionally frustrated with his chatty companion, and it seems the script intends Maggie’s chatter to affect the play’s audience similarly, but Salata’s dedication to Maggie’s vibrant and mercurial energy never wavers. When Joe’s studiousness is broken by fits of goofy play, Scoggins succeeds in finding the boy’s heart inside Joe’s determination for adulthood, but it is his moments of anger that are most revealing and human. In LOSERS, Riordan and Brazda each travel along vast emotional spectrums, harried by a lifetime of baggage, but their moments of abandon to sexual desires give LOVERS its most fun moments, as the two channel their inner teenagers for an escape on a rural hill, even if their hill is only a drab couch.
Scenic designer Brett J. Banakis boldly interprets Friel’s script by surrendering much of the theater’s stage space to a raised platform that serves as Maggie and Joe’s hill, and Andy and Hana’s imperfect sanctuary. Leaving only a narrow apron, a wall of about eight feet cuts off the traditional playing space and gives rise to the large platform. Downstage is the space for Man and Woman, and for Cissy’s bedroom, but the platform is reserved for the pairs of lovers. While the first one or two rows are certain to leave the theater with a stiff neck, the effect secludes the pairs of lovers—however temporarily—from the hurly burly of the everyday and nicely focuses the production’s attention on Friel’s examination of love in its natural habitat.
When Van Morrison grew a bit older and more reflective than the Belfast punk rocker we hear at the opening of this production, he sang of lovers sharing the burden of a fleeting life while strolling on the bright side of the road. Friel’s LOVERS wonders openly how much access we really have to the romance of such journeys. It is a play about capturing and embracing those brief moments when love and desire combine to produce an experience, though perhaps not a life, of happiness. In this play’s first full New York production since its heralded 1968 opening at Lincoln Center, The Actors Company Theatre adroitly finds and accentuates those most important moments.
By Brian Friel
Directed by Drew Barr
The Actors Company Theatre
Beckett Theatre (Theatre Row)
410 W. 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036