At the epicenter of the three acts that make up “Translations,” a couple reveal their undying love for each other, though neither understands the other’s language. It’s a fine, rhapsodic scene, and it’s one of the few that came fully to life during opening night of the Broadway tryout of Brian Friel’s 1980 play at Boston’s Colonial Theater.
There are two reasons why the scene played so poignantly: The affecting way Friel has the young Irish woman ostensibly speak Gaelic and the young English soldier who’s wooing her speak the foreign tongue of English — though both actors are actually speaking English; and the fact that the soldier is played by Michael Cumpsty.
Though he’s not one of the production’s four above-the-title stars, Cumpsty is at this point the onlycast member who fully inhabits and projects his character, and it’s only when he’s onstage that “Translations” blossoms. The opening night owed a lot to him. Unfortunately, he’s the last character to enter and the first to disappear, killed for the sin of loving an Irish woman and Ireland itself.
“Translations” is set in County Donegal in 1833, when the English army was mapping the area in and around Friel’s well-known fictional town of Ballybeg and Anglicizing all place names (the town is, in the Irish tongue, Baile Beag), attempting to subjugate the Irish by taking their language from them. A Burns Mantle best play of 1980-81, it received a celebrated U.S. premiere in New York that season at Manhattan Theater Club and has since been seen at numerous regional theaters. At the Colonial, it has its problems.
Friel is very leisurely about establishing the play’s milieu, with a handful of supporting characters in the main setting, a rough-hewn “hedge school.” With some of the dialogue muffled by assumed Irish accents, the opening offers too much padding before the play gets down to business. It doesn’t hit stride until act two. Then, after the disappearance of Cumpsty’s decent and enthusiastic, if naive, English soldier, act three seems bewilderingly diffuse and unfocused. Without Cumpsty, both the play and the production lack a focal point.
The stars are puzzlingly disappointing. Dana Delany doesn’t shine brightly enough as Cumpsty’s beloved. Rufus Sewell, here on an exchange between American and British Equity, is perfectly competent, but no more. Donal Donnelly is hard-pressed to survive under a vast gray beard as he reads Homer in the Greek and, in the last act, claims that he plans to marry Pallas Athena during what can only be described as the obligatory Irish drunk scene. And Brian Dennehy, about to make his Broadway debut in the role played by Barnard Hughes at the Manhattan Theater Club, is far too vigorous a physical presence to be believable as a poor early 19th-century schoolmaster of 35 years, now in his 60s.
Howard Davies’ direction and Ashley Martin-Davis’ settings are surprisingly old-fashioned, though when the basic schoolroom opens up to a misty Irish landscape for the love scene, it has its charms. And the performance seen looked under-lit and somewhat lost in the Colonial. The opening night had a technical problem well handled by cast, director and audience. At the start of the last act a power surge caused an amplifier to drown out the actors with its noise. The problem was solved in about five minutes, during which Davies spoke to the audience, and the act was begun again, proceeding to its end with no further technical glitches.
But there’s a lot more work to be done on this production of “Translations” if it’s to succeed on Broadway, where it’s scheduled to begin performances at the Plymouth Theater on March 7 and open March 19. Friel himself might help matters by tightening and clarifying the more diffuse elements of his script.