by Tulis McCall
I was looking forward to seeing “Aristocrats” at the Irish Repertory Theatre for a purely selfish reason. My heritage is half Irish and I was jonesing for the sound of an Irish accent.
Funny thing that. Two actors out of eight showed signs of Irish accents. Only one, Tim Ruddy (Eamon) was consistent and strong while the other, Shane McNaughton (Willie Diver) spoke with an accent that drifted in and out – even though he hails from Northern Ireland. None of the other actors, although a few of their bios indicate they are from or based in Ireland showed any signs of an Irish accent.
This is dumbfounding. It almost felt as though there had been a decision to forgo the accents on account of not everyone being able to manage equally.
This might sound fussy but watching a play that should give us the musicality of Brian Friel’s work, but does not, because the Irish accents are either missing altogether or fleeting at best, is a disappointment.
“Aristocrats” is the story of the O’Donnell family who live in Ballybeg Hall, County Donegal, Irelend. It is the 1970’s and everyone has gathered for two reasons. Claire (Meg Hennessy) is being married off to an older man who no one likes – not even Claire. But it is expected because she is not suited for anything else except teaching and playing piano. The other reason they are gathered – and this no one will admit – is that the patriarch of the O’Donnell family is dying. He is never seen but can be heard because of the new fangled baby monitor set up by the family’s all-around helper, Willie Diver. Casimir (Tom Holcomb) has arrived from Hamburg where he has a wife and children no one has met. Holcomb is so animated that he seems as though he maigh have stepped out of an Oscar Wilde play. Alice (Sarah Street) and her husband Eamon (Tim Ruddy) have arrived from London. We have no idea they are married until well into the latter part of the first act. Alice spends her days and nights drinking and Eamon spends his wondering why the third sister Judith (Danielle Ryan) didn’t follow through on her promise to marry him years back.
Tom Huffnung (Roger Dominic Casey) is a guest at the Hall because he is doing his thesis on how the upper-class (Aristocrats) affect the lower class and visa versa. His works has rather a long title but that is the gist of it. He is given the unenviable takes of listening to this motley and self referential crew and to take notes. And eventually he will find discrepancies.
Bottom line: no one is happy and they are trapped in the dilapidated hall together – just as they are trapped in their sad lives together. A situation like this calls for heavy lifting – and accents that befit the story.
The heavy lifting is not to be had. One element that defies logic is the set by Charlie Corcoran. It is an obstacle course in every way. There is a postage stamp sized platform up stage left that is supposed to be the study. It is here the actors contort themselves while they drink, make phone calls, review paperwork and explain the various furniture pieces’ history to Tom. Two steps downstage is a lawn where the actors set up and remove wooden folding chairs over and over again, and in the second act they play invisible croquet. Upstage right is a hanging swing seat where Alice spends a lot of time as she drinks the afternoon away.
The program tells us that this play is part of Friel’s move into a Chekhovian theater style. That makes sense. It is a study in the stillness of sadness. In this production, however, the tone is lugubrious with the result that it is more Harold Pinter than Chekhov. Between the set and the direction by Charlotte Moore these actors – like their characters – are trapped. For the most part, no one is connecting to one another – not the characters or the actors. Which leaves us in the audience puzzled instead of engaged. This is a production filled with good intentions that misses the mark.
WITH Roger Dominic Casey, Meg Hennessy, Tom Holcomb, Colin Lane, Shane McNaughton, Tim Ruddy, Danielle Ryan and Sarah Street.
Aristocrats features scenic design by Charlie Corcoran, costume design by David Toser, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, sound design and original music by Ryan Rumery
Opening is Sunday January 21, for a limited run through Sunday March 3, 2024, on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street).
The performance schedule for Aristocrats is as follows: Wednesdays at 2pm & 7pm, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 7pm, and Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets for Aristocrats start at $55 and are available at IrishRep.org.