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unpublished attempts at soft-core porn.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.