Toward the end of his luminous "Dancing at Lughnasa," Brian Friel had his narrator talk about "dancing as if language had surrendered to movement - as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness."
His new play, "Wonderful Tennessee," continues this yearning for "otherness." It concerns three couples waiting on a beach for a boat to take them to an island off the coast of County Donegal. While they wait they reminisce. One of them has an accordion, so they dance and sing folk songs and hymns.
They talk a lot about mythology, Christian and Greek. The island, we learn, was once populated by monks "with a rage for the absolute...whatever it is we desire but can't express, what is beyond language." One of the women tells a fable about the Nazareth home where Christ grew up, which, in the year 1294, flew to Italy. Another woman mentions the rituals of Eleusis in ancient Greece.
The Christian and the Greek traditions come together when one of the party tells why it is deserted. During the Depression, after returning from an Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, a group of local young people went to the island, became intoxicated and committed a ritual murder.
The boat never comes. Their curiosity about the island, their longing to see it is never fulfilled. As they depart they create their own ritual, leaving things that matter to them on a post (in the shape of a cross) to which boats might be moored.
Unlike "Lughnasa," which conveyed its primal impulses viscerally and with earthy humor, "Tennessee" deals with transcendence in an intellectual manner. By the end, an odd serenity is achieved, though it's quickly broken as the couples prepare to return to mundane reality.
At times Friel's elusive style is trying. But it is, after all, an Irish play, and so it throbs with music, literal and verbal, and the richness of the actors' voices engages the ear even when the play puzzles. The eye is entranced by the graceful way the cast, all from Dublin's Abbey Theater, move across Joe Vanek's evocative set.
The night I saw the play a whoop of laughter greeted a line calling the outing "useless, endless, unhappy." For some, that will seem apt. But for those who've followed Friel from the lighthearted "Philadelphia, Here I Come" 27 years ago, this mystical evening will seem an arresting stop on a great journey.
If you have just scored one of the dramatic hits of the decade with "Dancing at Lughnasa," what on earth do you do next?
Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote "Wonderful Tennessee," which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night. Like its predecessor, it began life at the Abbey Theater, Dublin, is directed by Patrick Mason, and comes to Broadway flush with its Irish cast.
There are other strong similarities between the two plays - Friel's guiding hand and artistic profile being extravagantly clear.
All Friel's later plays seem like gardens of thought and feelings in which the audience is invited to wander at will. "Wonderful Tennessee" - the title comes from a popular song and means nothing topographically specific - certainly proves no exception.
At one point during the play Friel mentions, almost wistfully, "a book without words." In a sense this mythic journey into a world of ambiguous ritual, classical references and commonplace miseries has something of the magical, yes, almost wordless, resonance of a Yeats poem, and an atmospheric density you can cut with a sigh.
The story is slight. A party of six friends and relations come to a deserted pier in Ballybeg, County Donegal, (the generic fictional village Friel uses in most of his plays) which looks out over an island.
The leader of the party, Terry (Donal McCann), tells everyone he has bough this mistily mysterious isle - and they are all waiting for a boatman Carlin (who might or not be related to Charon, that mythological ferryman for dead souls across the Styx), who, like Godot, never comes.
It is Terry's birthday party, and while they drink champagne, sing old songs and tell older stories, they discover something about themselves, something about the island which they do not reach, and something, perhaps, about the power of ritual and religion.
Meanwhile, we learn about their achingly complex sorrows, and insoluble everyday failures. Terry, a gambler who financially supports the entire brood, is married to Berna (Ingrid Craigie) but loves, and is loved in return, by her sister Angela (Catherine Byrne) who is married to a writer of some inconsequence, Frank (John P. Kavanagh).
Completing the sadly cheerful sextet is Terry's sister, Trish (Marion O'Dwyer), and her husband George (Robert A. Black), dying of throat cancer, and constantly playing his piano-accordion to provide himself with some meager solace and the play with its musical commentary.
Friel believes in a life older than stones and in powers that move spirits, in an ancient world outside our own with rulebooks we can only guess at.
He hints at this here even more vaguely than in the Dionysiac "Dancing at Lughnasa," and doubtless his people this time around possess less immediacy than those Lughnasa maidens. Nor is the play so well-rounded, so complete.
Yet, yet, yet...there is a fantastic beauty here that demands love even as it eludes complete comprehension, and the performances, under Mason's unobtrusive direction and led by the extraordinary McCann, are as smooth and starchy as Irish linen.
You may not easily understand "Wonderful Tennessee," but you won't easily forget it.
In the most famous scene in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa," five Irish sisters in County Donegal, 1936, suddenly break loose from their household drudgery to explode in dance to the music pouring out of their new Marconi radio. The scene has a power transcending language. As if by magic, the women levitate in spiritual ecstasy even as every fact of their lives pulls them closer to poverty, heartbreak and death.
"Wonderful Tennessee," Mr. Friel's new play at the Plymouth Theater, explores more or less the same themes, and why not? It is an eternal drama that time never heals. Life rushes on, fast and cruel, and still we cannot stop hungering irrationally for some mystical release, or, as "Wonderful Tennessee" puts it, for "whatever it is we desire but can't express."
But this time there is no ecstatic dance to bring the suffering characters in joyous touch with the ineffable, and there is no distance of decades and class separating those characters from much of the audience. Set on a Donegal pier in the present, "Wonderful Tennessee" is about a stalled birthday outing for three middle-class couples mired in midlife crisis. The couples' dead-end marriages and careers are unexceptional, as are the looming intimations of their mortality. They have psychiatrists, unpaid bills, failed ambitions and sexual pangs we can recognize directly as our own.
For this reason and others, "Wonderful Tennessee" seems both a less fully imagined and less transporting play than its predecessor, and so it is. No one is likely to mistake it for such other Friel masterworks as "Translations" or "Faith Healer," either. But those who are willing to meet a great playwright halfway will find that there are some deeply moving scenes, as moving in their way as the "Lughnasa" dance, to go with the many undercooked languors of "Wonderful Tennessee." They will also find a poetically acted and staged production, imported intact (with minor textual tinkerings) from its summer debut at the Abbey Theater in Dublin and marking the long-awaited return of Donal McCann and John Kavanagh, whose teamwork in "Juno and the Paycock" stunned Broadway in 1988.
Mr. McCann's role is Terry, the prosperous bookmaker and concert promoter whose birthday brings the couples together for an expedition to an uninhabited island just offshore. The ferryman who is supposed to take the revelers to their destination never shows up, however. Stranded in life, Terry and his friends now find themselves stranded on the pier, afloat in a hushed, crystalline heaven (as designed by Joe Vanek and lighted by Mick Hughes). There they pass a long day and night boozily revisiting the might-have-beens of their shared past and singing favorite pop tunes, hymns and folk songs, one of which gives the play its title.
When "Wonderful Tennessee" sticks to the specific drama of its characters, Mr. Friel cuts to the quick so fiercely that he leaves you hungry for more, however painful the revelations might be. And the actors, under the supple direction of Patrick Mason, match the author blood for blood. As Terry's brother-in-law, Frank, a failed writer who cannot complete his tome on "The Movement of Time and Its Effect on European Civilization," Mr. Kavanagh is acutely aware of his own hapless stature as one of life's permanent journeymen. A suburbanite in a car coat and cap, he at one devastating point abruptly drops his chipper mask and turns on Mr. McCann, desperately pleading that his friend imagine "the turmoil, the panic that people like me live in."
Yet the nominally successful Terry has his own problems. He wishes he had married Mr. Kavanagh's wife, the self-possessed Angela (Catherine Byrne), instead of her sister, the near-suicidal Berna (Ingrid Craigie). Wearing a Panama hat and a weary but beatific smile, the brilliant Mr. McCann always maintains the loyal facade of what Angela describes as "a man of infinite generosity and kindness." Still, clouds of regret and longing sweep lightly across his broad, open face, tugging the corners of his eyes and mouth into an exquisite sadness that becomes a subtextual drama in itself.
As Terry's outwardly jolly sister, Trish, Marion O'Dwyer offers a remarkably unsentimentalized portrayal of a wife nursing her dying spouse, a professional accordion player afflicted with throat cancer. When she realizes she has suppressed certain unhappy details in her jokey reminiscence of her own wedding, she turns the question "I couldn't have forgotten that, could I?" into a crackling flash of self-loathing. As her husband, a would-be classical pianist who settled for much less, Robert A. Black (an actual accordion player in his acting debut) is an indelible specter of death, chalky faced, nearly mute, yearning in every expression and gesture for rest.
For all the evening's finely textured passages, most of which come in Act I, Mr. Friel never does get around to scenes in which the couples reveal the underpinnings of their marriages or in which the two pairs of siblings fill in their bonds. Traits are frequently ascribed to characters -- the unhappy Berna and uninhibited Angela in particular -- without being illuminated. The playwright would rather devote a lot of time in a fairly brief play (just over two hours) to superimposing thematic symbols and allusions on his people and their actions instead of exploring them from within. As a result, "Wonderful Tennessee" seems at once underdramatized and overwritten.
Typically, the island Terry and his friends seek to visit is almost sunk by significance: it is likened to "a patch of light," its Gaelic name means "island of mystery" or "otherness," and its history includes a chapter as a pilgrimage destination for "people who wanted to be cured." Dionysian rituals, a crosslike post and votive offerings each have their own elaborate roles to play in "Wonderful Tennessee," some of which are baldly explicated by Angela, who all too conveniently happens to be a teacher of classics.
Although the ferryman who never arrives is not Godot, his name (Carlin) does echo Charon, who ferries the dead across the river Styx to the underworld. The compulsive storytelling and singing with which the waiting revelers kill time end up imprisoning "Wonderful Tennessee" in the static landscape of Beckett in any case, just as the first song we hear, "Happy Days Are Here Again," replays the irony of Beckett's own "Happy Days" with a heavy hand.
When, late in the evening, Angela decries the futility of this "useless, endless, unhappy outing," the audience laughs and applauds in somewhat derisive agreement. That judgment is too harsh. Giving expression to the inexpressible on stage is the most difficult imaginable task, and, for all the play's second-hand mythological and religious parables, there are still instances when Mr. Friel creates sacred drama in his own original terms. When the dying accordionist played by Mr. Black, badgered by his friends to tell a story, responds by ripping through a Beethoven sonata, the flaming intensity and tragic futility of an entire life are compressed into a single burst of demented music. There will be better plays than "Wonderful Tennessee" this season, but how many of them will take us, however briefly, to that terrifying and hallowed place beyond words?
Though a communal dance in the first act lasts just long enough to recall "Dancing at Lughnasa" two years ago, "Wonderful Tennessee" is a smaller, darker and more personal work. The raptures that flash quickly and rarely in Brian Friel's new play only throw into high relief an emotional landscape flattened by disappointment and imbued with the yearning of three couples gathered for a birthday celebration on a deserted pier stretching out into a fog-enshrouded sea.
Indeed, with its intimate musings on subjects sacred and commonplace, "Wonderful Tennessee" most echoes Friel's "Faith Healer"-- a breathtaking work that Broadway theatergoers rejected 14 years ago despite an unforgettable star turn by James Mason.
Audiences today may have as difficult a time with "Wonderful Tennessee." It lacks the narrative that made the stories of the five sisters in "Lughnasa" accessible.
But for those who felt frozen out of that plot -- and I'm among them -- having none is no great loss. Especially when the alternative is a movingly observed rite of passage that begins in drunken revelry and ends with promises of renewal that are unlikely to be kept.
The pier -- imposingly, starkly beautiful in Joe Vanek's design and Mick Hughes' lighting -- is in Friel's fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal. The celebratory group has arrived on a bright, hot summer afternoon in the expectation that a boatman will take them to a nearby island barely visible through the mist.
It is a place Terry Martin (Donal McCann) recalls having visited as a child with his father, called Oilean Draoichta, which translates as Island of Otherness, or Mystery -- though mystery in the sense of the unknown rather than the spooky.
Terry, the bookie whose birthday it is, reveals early on that he has bought the island. The boatman remains holed up in his distant cottage and the three couples never make it to the island.
Instead, they spend the day and night singing pop tunes and church hymns, telling stories and otherwise fortifying themselves against a future that holds little to cheer about.
Terry's morose wife, Berna (Ingrid Craigie), begins the play with a declaration of unhappiness, though she is secretly loved by her husband's best friend, Frank (John Kavanagh), a philosopher-writer manque. Then again, Frank's wife, Angela (Catherine Byrne) -- Berna's sister and a classicist who delivers a mean version of "Falling in Love Again"-- has had something going with Terry. And Terry's good-hearted sister Trish (Marion O'Dwyer) is married to George (Robert Black), an accordion player dying of throat cancer who speaks eloquently with his instrument.
If this all sounds too bleak to bear, it is far from that. Friel has too much empathy for his characters and more than enough humor to make these people worth our attention.
The island becomes a symbol of both intrigue and horror: One legend had it that the island appeared briefly every seven years, but this is no Brigadoon.
Terry relates an incident from the '30s in which 14 teenagers, returning from a Eucharistic congress in Dublin, made their way across the inlet and, undoubtedly drunk, murdered one of their own in a ritualistic sacrifice.
Spiritual yearnings weigh as heavily as romantic ones on these couples. Taking off on his own to find the boatman, Frank returns awe-struck by the vision of a dolphin dancing with "exquisite abandon" for nearly a minute above the water, he swears, calling it "my Ballybeg epiphany." When it is George's turn to tell a story, he launches into a passage from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," played as if the brief life left to him depended on it.
And no sooner has Terry told the gruesome tale of the ritual murder than the other five perform their own mockery of the sacrifice, tearing off one of his shirtsleeves to add to the pier's life-preserver stand, a none-too-subtle cruciform hung with visitors' belts, bracelets and other mementos.
Vowing to return again as daylight breaks after their night on the pier, they know they almost certainly never will: You can see it in the disappointment that their smiles betray.
Under Patrick Mason's elegant direction, the company is riveting; not a moment of ponderousness or sanctimony creeps into any of these indelible performances.
"Wonderful Tennessee"-- the title comes from one of the tunes they sing -- is beautifully written and just as beautifully delivered.