Does the upper crust ever do anything but decay? So many plays are obsessed not with who the rich are but instead who they were that you can often predict a new one - or an unfamiliar old one - merely by applying your knowledge of another member of the genre. Of the two significant problems with the Irish Repertory Theatre’s otherwise respectable production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, the only unavoidable one is that it’s opening the same season as a high-profile play filled with almost eerie similarities: Dividing the Estate.
True, Horton Foote’s gentle play - which recently ended its Broadway run - was about a clan of Texans, and Friel’s treats an Irish brood in Ballybeg. But both tell essentially the same story, of the next generation faced with turbulent economic prospects brought about by older relatives and exacerbated by owning a house bigger than any of the children can use. Neither group exactly sees the past as an enemy, but it’s at least an unwanted visitor amid people who have far more important things to worry about.
Charlotte Moore’s production of Friel’s play is a breezy and laid-back one, drawing few (if any) distinctions between the comedy and drama of these people’s lives. It also presents the very simple story as something of a corporeal ghost yarn, with actors materializing as if from the walls of James Morgan’s fading-oil-painting set, and their offstage voices or piano playing providing the crucial texture of a close-knit group of loving discontents. You get the sense that this family is just what it appears to be: dissolving, but trying to solidify itself with its last gasps.
On hand to document those final breaths is Tom Hoffnung (Rufus Collins), a professor from Chicago who hopes to write about the once-illustrious solicitor family and the home, Ballybeg Hall, in which it’s long lived. But his history-in-the-making goes deeper than he’d planned when he witnesses firsthand the most decisive, tumultuous changes the family has yet experienced, with the children at last taking over from the adults - but not at all prepared for the switch.
Judith (Lynn Hawley) is their caretaker of not just their ailing father and elderly uncle George (Geddeth Smith), but everyone who comes beneath the decaying Ballybeg Hall roof. Her husband, Willie Diver (Sean Gormley), is calm and patient with her, but cannot relate to the depths of her struggles. Judith’s unstable sister Alice (Orlagh Cassidy) has a fondness for drink and bad behavior, especially toward her husband Eamon (Ciarán O’Reilly), who’s just an ordinary man that’s been roped into this barely extraordinary family. The third sister, Claire (Laura Odeh), is about to get married to a loving and protective man quite a few years her senior.
Everyone is trapped, then, as much within their own walls as their home’s. Friel realizes that such walls are not easily broken down, and for the most part doesn’t even try to force his characters to do so - most of their journey involves coming to accept what is and what is not, and making the most they can of what few parts of it they can control. As such, this is not an action-laden piece, even by Friel’s regularly relaxed standards for the term. But there’s nonetheless a great deal of vivid feeling here, and though they get off to a slow start, Moore and her company eventually tap into enough of it to warm this unassuming play to fireside comfort levels.
Hawley and Odeh are particularly charming, bearing the heaviest weights and finding the most touching exposed nerves among any of the hurting people onstage: Hawley’s resignation toward her fate is the clearest reminder of what’s already been lost and Odeh’s indifference toward her future the surest sign of dangers yet to come. There are no finer bookends here, though Cassidy presents a chillingly effective drunk scene; and Gormley and O’Reilly embody two different (if related) visions of domestic not-quite-bliss.
All that prevents Aristocrats from attaining wall-to-wall dramatic elegance is John Keating. He plays the girls’ brother, Casimir, as a dopey Asperger case, far more irritating than ingratiating. The character is supposed to be this family’s equivalent of the off-kilter eccentrics well-to-do families try to keep out of the public eye until they run them for governmental positions, but Keating plays him as overtly mentally disadvantaged and not at all in tune with the world around him.
This wouldn’t matter if the character made only a one-off appearance, or was intended as easily forgettable comic relief. But the ever-curious Casimir, visiting from Germany (where he lives with his wife and children) to dispense nuggets of questionably accurate bits of personal history, is a central fixture, a symbol of the reality and fantasy the family has occupied and can never completely escape from. Keating, however, is acting in a closed circle, which shuts out the other performers and characters and obstructs most of the necessary waypoints on these now-commoners’ travels into an uncertain, but promising, future.