Thursday, May 04, 2006

Excruciating

Last night I attended the final preview performance of Brian Friel's play Faith Healer, which opens on Broadway tonight.

Rarely have I had a theatrical experience that demanded so much of its audience, and gave so little. The play is a series of four half-hour-plus monologues: the first and last told by the titular itinerant healer Frank Hardy, played by Ralph Fiennes, the second and third by Cherry Jones as Hardy's long-suffering wife or partner and Ian McDiarmid as his manager.

The tale, such as it is, unfolds as each character -- drunk -- describes a series of events that occurred around Ireland, Wales and Scotland as Hardy traveled about earning money in remote villages, performing "one night only" as a faith healer. The multiple viewpoints give it a Rashomon-like quality, in that you can never be sure whose version is more accurate, though it appears Hardy's version is more deliberately misleading.

The peformances are extraordinary. Cherry Jones, seated for her entire monologue, conveys a woman struggling to come to terms with love for a man whose love for her was both invigorating and destructive. The picture she paints of her life on the road is bleak, and the aftermath bleaker still. At intermission, a few audience members decided they'd had enough.

It's too bad, because they missed a tour-de-force by Ian McDiarmid as Teddy, who brings a desperately needed dose of charm and lightheartedness to the evening even as he, too, relates episodes of overwhelming sadness. His range as an actor his extraordinary: in the endearing, eccentric, foppish mannerisms of the elderly Englishman, no trace of Emperor Palpatine can be detected.

There is, unfortunately, a giant hole at the center of the play, which is partly the fault of the script and partly the fault of Mr. Fiennes. I wondered how a play about a faith healer could manage to avoid entirely any discussion of faith. Hardy is not a charlatan; sometimes he does heal people. But how? Or, more importantly, how does he believe he does it? And what does it mean to him? He doesn't say.

Teddy and Grace both speak of Frank as someone who held enormous power over them; they were in awe of him, addicted to him. Yet onstage Fiennes summons a character of wan charm and minimum presence.

Ultimately, it is the play's structure which deals it the death blow. The monologues, while beautifully written, compelling and realistic, are long, and rambling, just as they might be told by an intoxicated person with a lot weighing on their heart and mind. Unfortunately, realism doesn't always make the best theater, if the restlessness of the audience is any indication.

2 comments:

Aethlos said...

omg, "Rashomon-like" talk dirty to me!... why didn't cherry STAND up at least once? how much did your ticket cost?

kr pdx said...

too bad .. I like Friel. But one can't be perfect, I suppose :).