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Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 24, 2024

David McElwee, A.J. Shively, Deirdre Madigan,
and Patrick Fitzgerald

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Philadelphia, Here I Come! was Brian Friel's first major success, and the new revival at Irish Repertory Theatre, part of its Friel Project retrospective, offers ample evidence why. It's a small play, easily produced, with familiar characters and conflicts, one of several mid-1960s family comedy-dramas that populated Broadway and West End stages. It has Friel's usual mastery of language, and Irish Rep's revival is cozy and likable. But Philadelphia, Here I Come! hasn't aged all that well, mainly because, well, nothing very much happens.

It does offer one ingenious stage device–one that it's surprising more playwrights haven't employed, and one that might have suited Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude better than all that single-character double-talk. The protagonist, Gar O'Donnell (David McElwee), is indeed headed for Philadelphia tomorrow morning, escaping a dreary small-town existence in Ballybeg. Gar isn't that articulate, and he tends to censor his interior thoughts lest the Ballybeg residents be offended or angered. So Friel serves us up a second Gar, billed as Gar-Private. He verbalizes those silent thoughts while sparring with the real Gar (Gar-Public), trying on American accents he learned at the movies, and singing and dancing with the glee and abandon the real Gar wishes he had. What better way to depict a protagonist completely, interior and exterior versions?

A.J. Shively, lately wonderful in Paradise Square on Broadway and A Man of No Importance off-Broadway, brings his musical-comedy chops to Gar-Private, and they're invaluable. His comic timing is aces, and he enlivens the action, of which there is not a great deal. Friel specialized in soul-of-Ireland plays, abundant in historical and political context, and this one's more personal and less social-comment than usual. There's the implicit editorializing on the static economy and Catholic-Protestant clash of the Irish hinterlands in 1962, but mostly we're dealing with a generic sad young man trying to shake off his soul-deadening surroundings.

Gar, whose mother passed shortly after birthing him, is 25 and in a rut. He's attended to by a longtime housekeeper, Madge (Terry Donnelly, scowling, shuffling discontentedly, and stealing most of her scenes), and works in the general store owned by S.B., his dutiful, dour, inexpressive father (Ciarán O'Reilly, who also directs). He recently wooed the willing Katie Doogan (Clare O'Malley) but swallowed the crucial words at a crucial moment, sending her into the arms of a wealthier rival.

An opportunity arrives with a visit from Gar's Aunt Lizzy (Deirdre Madigan, resplendent in costume designer Orla Long's hilarious 1960s ensemble), a lively, vulgar Philadelphian with her cowed, practically silent husband Con Sweeney (Patrick Fitzgerald) in tow. Lizzy, childless and not happy about it, invites Gar to Philadelphia and finds him employment at a hotel, a chance to leave his placid environment and reinvent himself. Will he accept? Public and private Gar argue about it a bit, but is there really any doubt?

The conflicts, then, are minimal; mostly, Philadelphia, Here I Come! is slice-of-life. It's the sort of play whose mid-century economics allowed plenty of subsidiary characters who don't affect the outcome much: Gar's old schoolmaster, Master Boyle (Fitzgerald again); Ben, a well-off American friend of Aunt Lizzy's (Peter Cormican); Katie's intimidating politician father, Senator Doogan, and the local canon, Canon O’Byrne (both Ciaran Byrne); several drinking buddies of Gar's (Emmett Earl Smith as Joe, James Russell as Ned, Tim Palmer as Tom), whose aimless palaver about girls and booze takes up a goodly part of the second act. (Friel's stage direction: "Tranquility is their enemy. They fight it valiantly.")

There are compelling side stories: Madge's delight and eventual disillusion over her new grandniece, Gar's sense of loss at never having known his mother, his memory–or did he dream it?–of the one idyllic day he shared with his father many years ago. These inspire some of Friel's most lyrical writing, and there's tension in the face-off between O'Donnell pere and fils: Will they ever have a decent, soul-baring conversation? Unfortunately, they don't.

But much of the language is lovely, and O'Reilly's fluid direction allows the actors, strategically placed on Charlie Corcoran's too-modest set, to shine. O'Reilly in particular makes a meal out of S.B., a nonentity carrying unspoken reserves of regret and affection, and McElwee's guarded Gar-Public is a suitably awkward counterweight to Shively's ebullient Private one, a walking id who also gets most of the good lines. O'Malley is a conventional ingenue until a trenchant, well-played scene where she pops up to wish the departing Gar well and gets more than she bargained for.

Such good moments make one wish for more heft, more heat, more size: Friel's play is pleasant and atmospheric, but it remains rather slight. Philadelphia, here he comes! Then he goes. The end.

Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Through May 5, 2024
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 32nd Street
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