Off-Broadway Review: ARISTOCRATS (Irish Repertory Theater)

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by Paola Bellu on February 2, 2024

in Theater-New York


The mid-19th century, with its changing class dynamics, marked the decline of the power of aristocracy in Europe and Russia. Rural landowners, who owned large estates, saw their wealth, power, and mansions disintegrate generation after generation. Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, tackles the same dramatic yet frivolous issues as so many other texts have done.

Roger Dominic Casey and Tom Holcomb
Sarah Street, Roger Dominic Casey and Tom Holcomb

It is 1975 in County Donegal, the eve of a wedding in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg (Friel’s arcadia), where the O’Donnell’s, a once-prominent Catholic family, reunite after many years. Casimir (Tom Holcomb), the only brother and the one who was supposed to carry on the family name, has a low-level job in a Hamburg sausage factory. He can’t stop talking because, as a deus ex machina, Tom (Roger Dominic Casey) — an academic who is researching the decline of the O’Donnell’s for a study — is in town; Casimir wants to impress him, so to establish an impossible family mythology, he clearly makes up lies about important figures (Yeats, Liszt, Balzac, and others) either visiting or meeting the O’Donnell’s.

Roger Dominic Casey, Sarah Street and Tom Holcomb

In the background, we hear the youngest sister, Claire (lovely Meg Hennessy), the bride-to-be, playing Chopin. She lives at home with her sister Judith (Danielle Ryan) who runs the place and takes care of their sick father (Colin Lane, who also plays fashionable, silent, old Uncle George). We hear him moaning from a baby monitor, his mind devastated by a stroke; once a District Judge, respected and feared, now drooling and, not recognizing her, yells at Judith, “Judith betrayed the family.”

Tim Ruddy and Meg Hennessy
Meg Hennessy and Sarah Street

The other visiting sibling, who like Casimir left Ballybeg, is the sexy and lonely Alice (Sarah Street), who lives in a basement flat in London with her husband Eamon (Tim Ruddy), a loud probation officer. The only other character who is not part of the family is a working-class local, Willie (Shane McNaughton), who helps Judith run the place and secretly loves her.

Shane McNaughton, Colin Lane, and Roger Dominic Casey

We see through the facade from the beginning; every character is hiding juicy secrets I will not reveal. On stage we have a garden with a study/drawing room where everything happens; Charlie Corcoran’s indoor-outdoor set and Michael Gottlieb’s lighting are delicate and efficient but perhaps too passive for such a wordy play. An almost unused backdrop could have helped sustain the plot’s inactivity; just like the suitable costumes by David Toser, everything is about the characters but nothing about the time and place. Nothing speaks of their glorious past, no crumbling signs of the mansion, no hills, perfect summer weather, nothing reminds us of 1975 or Ireland aside from the actors’ accents and what they say.

Danielle Ryan and Tim Ruddy
Tim Ruddy, Colin Lane, Tom Holcomb, Meg Hennessy and Roger Dominic Casey

Director Charlotte Moore’s revival of Aristocrats, part of Irish Rep’s season-long Friel Project, is classical but not harmonious, partly because of the limited space the theater offers and the amount of characters on stage at the same time. As per any Chekhovian play, they are all suffering: Holcomb, whose character represents unfulfilled potential, is the perfect obnoxious fabulist, but, like Casey, a bit too childish; Street is a credible glamorous alcoholic, the perfect sinner with a heart; Ruddy, as her boorish husband, deftly breaks up the inaction with his humorous tirades. Hennessy is also persuasive as the naïve lamb who cannot fend for herself. And so is the rest of the cast, effective, professional, but not in harmony, recounting their singular stories and, ultimately, generating little pathos. It is a difficult text full of unlikable characters, nuances, subtle humor, stories within stories — this production, unfortunately, wasn’t able to extract enough drama out of it.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St
Francis J Greenburger Mainstage
ends on March 3 2024
for tickets, call 212.727.2737 or visit Irish Rep

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