Brian Friel's Delving, Involving "The Home Place," Ted Greenberg's Kinetic Father-Son "Ace"

10/10/2017 10:05 pm ET

During Brian Friel’s The Home Place it’s the summer of 1878 in Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland when Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) has invited his brother, Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph) to his home. Gore is there with assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington) to conduct his supposedly scientific studies of head types as indisputable indications of ethnicity.

The play, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is Friel looking back at the time when England’s rule over Ireland was beginning to weaken. This is his close look at a specific house meant to represent the end of one era when the definition of both the British and Irish home place was radically beginning to shift.

The impetus here is Dr. Gore’s study, which calls for his measuring heads and arm lengths to compile statistics that looked at now are ludicrous but made sense to the doctor and others, like his brother, whom he’d convinced.

At the same time, Gore’s experiments were felt to degrade those studied. More to the point, Gore’s probes angered Donegal locals like Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins) and silent, menacing Johnny McLoone (Gordon Tashjian), who aren’t explicitly named Fenians but most likely are. The latter two—and cohorts they threaten could quickly join them—take the splendid Gore home goings-on as yet another English assault on Irish independence.

Though those heated exchanges are the point on which Friel’s dramatic arc rests, other class-conscious elements hold sway in the household. Margaret O’Donnell (Rachel Pickup), who manages the home, has risen above her local station due to her becoming the object of affection for Gore father and son, David (Ed Malone). Also coloring the Gore atmosphere are the mixed attitudes towards housemaid Sally Cavanaugh (Andrea Lynn Green), who expects to marry Con Doherty. Margaret has little time for her, while Christopher has a soft spot in his patron’s heart for her.

The clashes and near head-bangings carry on in Friel’s two acts, which have the feel of Anton Chekhov on uppers. Tossed into the mix are other lower-class Ballybeg people like Mary Sweeney (Polly McKie) and Tommy Boyle (Logan Riley Bruner), who’ve volunteered to have their heads examined, so to speak—the former because she needs money to feed her five children and the latter for the fun of it and the photograph of himself he’s promised.

Also dropping by, drunk as usual, is choir leader Clement O’Donnell (Robert Langdon Lloyd), a constant embarrassment to daughter Margaret, for whom he’s a reminder of the social status she’s hoping to put in her past.

Friel (1929-2016) is one of those playwrights—they aren’t abundant—who never goes wrong. It’s a pleasure to have this play, which bowed at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 2005 debut here. What’s deeply moving about Friel’s Home Place writing is the balance with which he present all sides of a troubled issue—the losing-their-grip English and the itching-to-flare-up Irish.

It’s particularly welcome in director Charlotte Moore’s production with a flawless ensemble. No one puts a foot, hand or syllable wrong, and each has at least one sterling moment to claim focus along Friel’s sure-handed, clear-eyed way.

Everything occurs on a lovely, thoroughly convincing James Noone tree- surrounded set, which displays an upstage dining room, a mid-stage living room and a downstage patio—and herein lies the only misstep Moore makes.

Perhaps it’s trivial to point out that characters on the patio and the living room speak loudly at the invisible wall dividing dining room from patio. This is a bothersome directorial choice. When people speak to one another in this manner, they normally direct comments towards the door between the rooms, not the separating wall—and there is a door indicated here.

Never mind. Everything else in Friel’s work, as realized here, has the desired illuminatingly provocative effect.

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If you’re wondering what is the most popular theme for male writers, there’s one that tops them all: father-son. Start, for instance with Homer’s Odyssey and follow the annals through to, this week for instance, Ted Greenberg’s Ace, at the Marjorie S. Deane.

Greenberg—a Harvard graduate, David Letterman staff writer, friend of songwriter David Yazbek (currently The Band’s Visit) and son of Bear Stearns CEO Alan Greenberg (1978-1993)—is spending slightly more than an hour talking about his relationship with the old man.

Although Greenberg’s curriculum vitae is mighty impressive, he focuses on a the time when he drove a cab round Manhattan while thinking about getting to the unwritten paper on Edmund Spenser of The Faerie Queen fame that stands between him and the Harvard diploma he’s still shy of.

Much of this time, while he’s living on limited means (actually, he can count on making $50,000 annually), he also feels estranged from a father who when a young man gave himself the nickname Ace and then lived up, bravura-like, to the moniker’s denotations.

On a metal chair that he keeps spinning into new places on the stage and while set designer Guy de Lancey’s lights flash to suggest Manhattan traffic and Luqman Brown fills in the Gotham soundscape, the thin-faced, wiry Greenberg tells the story of his eventual reconciliation with Dad.

Under Elizabeth Margid’s directions, Greenberg is nervous, assured, amusing and longingly sincere as he motors—sometimes recklessly—around Manhattan, a large part of which is a day when he shoots for a record 50 trips. Does he reach his goal? Find out for yourself. It’s so worth the short time that you’ll tell him to keep the change.

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