As a star-driven vehicle for Broadway, Brian Friel’s 1980 “Translations” is an odd, not to say risky, choice. True, the play’s centerpiece is one of the most touching love scenes in the modern repertoire. But it’s a relatively brief interlude in a play whose deeply felt themes are worked through haltingly and with maddening obscurantism. Though Friel has continued to go his own dramatic way with more or less success in such haunting works as “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Wonderful Tennessee,” a fine London revival two years ago and this production suggest he hasn’t felt compelled to address the problems that make “Translations” such a challenge to love. Stars or no stars, it’s going to be a tough sell on Broadway.
The play is also overshadowed by its inspired American premiere in 1981 at the Manhattan Theater Club, staged by the Abbey Theater’s Joe Dowling.
The play is set in Friel’s beloved fictional town of Ballybeg in 1833, when the British Royal Engineers have been deployed to map the district and standardize — i.e., Anglicize — local place names; until now, in fact, the town has been known by its Gaelic name, Baile Beag.
Hugh (Brian Dennehy), the hard-drinking, hard-driving Greek- and Latin-loving master of a country hedge-school, has raised two sons; the younger, Manus (Rob Campbell) is set to follow in his footsteps after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Maire (Dana Delany). The elder, the prodigal Owen (Rufus Sewell), returns after a six-year absence, having been hired by the British to serve as translator and to smooth the way for a transition that will not, as it turns out , proceed smoothly at all.
That the cultural identity of these poor farmers is wholly wrapped up in their language, and that they will shed blood to retain it, is the heart of the matter in “Translations,” and the timing — the years leading up to the Great Hunger — makes the story all the more compelling. Friel takes it a step further by having Maire fall in love with Lt. Yolland (Michael Cumpsty), who is himself unexpectedly drawn to the language his purpose it is to eradicate.
In a scene of throat-clutching poignancy, the two express their love for each other, he in English, she in Gaelic, neither understanding what the other is saying (though it is all spoken in English), until at last Yolland begins speaking the Gaelic place names he has grown to love, she repeating them softly, like a chant, as they fall into one another’s arms.
Delany is the production’s big disappointment, in part because she’s surrounded by actors with a lot more stage seasoning; she gives a girlish, acting-school performance, pouting and posing and assuming the kind of anticipatory posturing that suggest an actor waiting for a cue rather than listening to a line.
Some of that falls away in the love scene, in part because Cumpsty is so generous an actor and such a pleasure himself to watch, his homey, lima bean face an endless source of expressive surprises. But when Delany interacts with the play’s two other women — Amelia Campbell, as a near mute, and Miriam Healy-Louie, as a spirited neighbor and student — the shortcomings are thrown into starker relief.
Sewell is perfect as the rakish Owen, who takes a job on a lark and realizes, too late, his terrible mistake. Dennehy is no one’s idea of a man worn down by 35 years of hard life and harder liquor, and too little disappointment registers when Hugh learns that a promised position has been given to someone else. Yet there’s an appealing virility in the performance that considerably lightens up an evening that otherwise progresses, in Howard Davies’ workmanlike staging, merely efficiently.
There are other welcome sparks from Donal Donnelly, as Jimmy Jack, the senior student and even greater lover than Hugh of Homer and Virgil; from Rob Campbell’s edgy Manus and David Herlihy’s eager-to-please Doalty, another student.
Ashley Martin-Davis’ setting is aptly plain until it opens up for the lovely out-of-doors scene between Maire and the lieutenant, and Chris Parry’s lighting — always an essential with a Friel play, is just beautiful, throwing grays and golds across the earthy scene. Joan Bergin’s costumes, too, are exactly right.
But in the end, Friel fiddles away the tension, so carefully built by the intermission, during a final act in which Ballybeg literally burns. The comic relief offered by the drunken Hugh and Jimmy Jack as all hell is breaking loose around them dissipates everything; it seems cheap and forced. We’ve been promised much more, and the disappointment is palpable.