“Aristocrats” revives a lesser-known Brian Friel play

Meg Hennessy and Sarah Street are sitting on a swimming bench.
Meg Hennessy and Sarah Street in Irish Rep's 2024 production of 'Aristocrats' (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Roger Dominic Casey and Tom Holcomb are sitting and having a conversation.
Roger Dominic Casey and Tom Holcomb in Irish Rep’s 2024 production of ‘Aristocrats’ (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The noted Irish playwright/director/writer Brian Friel (1929-2015) wrote some 24 plays during his career. The best known of these are the elegaic Dancing at LughnasaTranslations, dealing with cultural annihilation; and the wistful Philadelphia, Here I Come!.

Among Friel’s other works, better-known and received in Ireland and London than on Broadway, are Faith Healer and The Loves of Cass McGuire. The Irish Repertory Theatre, which has produced many of Friel’s works in lovingly rendered productions off-Broadway, has revived Aristocrats, which I would say falls in the latter category of Friel’s works.

Aristocrats deals with the breakdown of class divides and the near-impossibility of maintaining upper class standards in Ireland in the mid-1970’s. We meet the declining O’Donnell siblings at their estate, Ballybeg Hall in County Donegal: Judith (Danielle Ryan), the caretaker of the family and its home; Alice (Sarah Street), married to Eamon (Tim Ruddy), who finds her solace in alcohol; Claire (Meg Hennessy), a talented pianist; and Casimir (Tom Holcomb), the only son, who claims to have a wife and two children in Hamburg, Germany. Also at the house is the handyman and general manager, Willie Diver (Shane McNaughton); two members of the previous generation, District Justice O’Donnell, the family patriarch, and the silent, otherworldly Uncle George (both portrayed by Colin Lane); and a journalist, Tom Huffnung (Roger Dominic Casey), gathering information for an article about Ireland’s fading gentry.

The action is fairly static. The four siblings, in a rare weekend of family reunion, idle away the days. Judith stoically bears the brunt of keeping the house from falling apart, taking care of her father and uncle, and making ends meet on an increasingly dwindling income, while fending off the advances of Willie and the rueful reminiscences of her ex-suitor Eamon.

Alice prefers to spend her time in booze-filled spates of brutally cynical honesty. Claire is mostly practicing for an upcoming recital when not engaging in games with Casimir, who focuses on feeding Tom increasingly over-the-top tales of the family’s glory days. The mostly-unseen father barks commands or whines feebly over a newly-installed baby monitor, and Uncle George slowly moves with disapproving quiet through the house.

The lazy idyll comes to an abrupt pause when tragedy strikes the family.

Aristocrats captures Friel’s admiration for Russian playwrights, especially the Chekhov of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, where large families of the fading aristocracy dwindle in the face of changing societies. Second-act revelations in Aristocrats are designed to bring clarity and focus to the first act but, for the most part, fall somewhat flat. Things said and unsaid leave the audience to piece together the family’s history, an interesting but ultimately fruitless experience either during the show or after it.

The cast, under the direction of Charlotte Moore, tries their best with what Friel has provided them. But I think this is a lesser Friel work, interesting only in that it is not produced often. While the Irish Repertory Theatre is to be praised for dedicating its 35th Anniversary season to three of Brian Friel’s plays — starting with Translations this past fall and looking ahead to Philadelphia, Here I Come! later this spring — one could wish that they could have chosen a better example of his talent than Aristocrats.

Aristocrats is presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22nd Street in New York through March 3, 2024.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.