Give Me Your Answer, Do!

Among the often drunken, collectively despairing characters in Brian Friel's "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" is a populist writer named Garret (Des McAleer) who is accused of being "too anxious to please." Well, no one is likely to level that charge against Friel on the basis of his latest play. A ceaselessly sour work lacking this writer's usual flights of rapture, the play gives off the feel of Friel working through some private agenda rather than reaching out to an audience that has been moved by his epiphanies and language for well over three decades. The bitter effect, coupled with a far from perfect production that already seems overacted and underfelt, makes this one for devotees exclusively, who will be busy ticking off numerous points of comparison to other, better Friel works. As the play stands now, commercial prospects for the West End and Broadway (both of which are planned for the summer and fall, respectively) look grim.

With:
Cast: Tom Hickey (Tom), Catherine Byrne (Daisy), David Kelly (Jack), Darragh Kelly (David), Aideen O'Kelly (Maggie), Kathleen Barrington (Nurse), Des McAleer (Garret), Frances Tomelty (Grainne), Pauline Hutton (Bridget).

In tone, “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” is most immediately akin to “Wonderful Tennessee,” a brave and extraordinarily moving work that was an undeserved

Broadway flop. As before, the setting is a party gone awry, just as the focus once again is on three married couples whose disenchantment is as defining of their identity as the fictional Donegal community of Ballybeg is of Friel’s. Tom

Connolly (Tom Hickey) is a once-prolific novelist whose talent and money have dried up, leaving his emotional energy directed toward an institutionalized, autistic 22-year-old daughter, Bridget (Pauline Hutton).

While Tom’s trips to Bridget’s bedside frame the play, wife Daisy (Catherine Byrne) is at home receiving guests in their remote crumbling manse (shades here of “Aristocrats”). The first of these is David (Darragh Kelly), the agent for a university in Texas who has come to inquire about purchasing Tom’s archives, little aware that the complete Connolly output includes (not very probably) two

unpublished attempts at soft-core porn. (The first one is named for Tom’s afflicted daughter, a disturbing piece of news that goes unremarked upon.)

Also visiting the Connolly home (Frank Hallinan Flood’s set shows fallen, cracked statuary) are Daisy’s elderly parents, Jack (David Kelly) and Maggie (Aideen O’Kelly), and a second writer, McAleer’s aforementioned Garret, and his

wife Grainne (Frances Tomelty).

The couples bicker and spar, often self-consciously so (Garret and Grainne are an Edward Albee pastiche), while the issue of whether David will buy and Tom will sell lends a contrived air of suspense. That discussion prompts numerous riffs on the lot of the author (is to sell off to sell out?) that grant “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” a comparable place in Friel’s work to something like “Stardust Memories” within Woody Allen’s.

By now Friel has certainly earned the right to reinvent himself — this may be his first play to more or less dispense with storytelling, as integral a part of Friel’s writing as it is of August Wilson’s. But reinvention is not the same as self-referentiality, an authorial gamble that doesn’t pay off.

The voice of reason belongs to Byrne’s Daisy, a scant surprise inasmuch as it was the same actress who got the climactic “Yes, yes, yes!” in “Tennessee.” This time, she voices the “necessary uncertainty” that constitutes the writer’s (or anyone’s) only antidote to the final verdict, which presumably is death. Truth to tell, the new work needs all the good will that Byrne increasingly brings to

Friel, especially since Hickey is fatally mannered in a role requiring the quiet gravitas of the actress’s “Tennessee” co-star, Donal McCann.

Friel’s direction is livelier than his work on “Molly Sweeney” (the new play, inevitably, allows for more animation) though it’s difficult to know how McAleer and Tomelty could make anything substantive of roles that seem tired from the

minute they are introduced. While O’Kelly, as Byrne’s arthritic mother, was visibly off form at the reviewed performance (later, one learned, for understandable personal reasons), veteran Irish actor David Kelly sustains a breakdown scene that is the play’s single most rending moment, as the character’s practiced foppishness gives way to grief.

Still, such stabs at the heart are rarer than in any Friel play since “Making History,” even if the author’s increasing use of disability in his last three plays (throat cancer in “Tennessee,” blindness in “Molly Sweeney,” autism here)

makes one wonder if he is losing faith in the power of language alone to involve an audience weaned on so many disease-of-the-week TV movies. Or are the losses

of sight and sound Friel’s current way of signaling the realm of that language beyond words that has been his ongoing topic? Whatever the reason, it comes as a shock that the ending of the play, with its talk of “soar(ing) above this

earth,” leaves an audience so earthbound. It’s not Bridget who has lost a voice in “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” For once, and let us hope temporarily, it is Friel himself.

Give Me Your Answer, Do!

Dublin

Production: An Abbey Theater presentation in association with Noel Pearson of a play in two acts written and directed by Brian Friel. Sets, Frank Hallinan Flood

Creative: Costumes, Joan O'Clery; lighting, Mick Hughes; sound, Dave Nolan. Opened March 12, 1997, at the Abbey Theater. Reviewed March 15; 628 seats; IL14 ($ 20) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Tom Hickey (Tom), Catherine Byrne (Daisy), David Kelly (Jack), Darragh Kelly (David), Aideen O'Kelly (Maggie), Kathleen Barrington (Nurse), Des McAleer (Garret), Frances Tomelty (Grainne), Pauline Hutton (Bridget).

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