Lost In 'Translation' Starry Cast Goes For Brogue, But Falls Far Short In Friel's London Hit About Anglo-Irish Conflict

New York Daily News, 20 May 1995
By Howard Kissel

TRANSLATIONS. By Brian Friel. With Brian Dennehy, Michael Cumpsty, Dana Delany, Donal Donnelly, Rufus Sewell, Miriam Healy-Louie and others. Sets by Ashley Martin-Davis. Costumes by Joan Bergin. Directed by Howard Davies. At the Plymouth.

Brian Friel'S 'Translations," a parable about the impossibility of understanding between the English and the Irish, is, I'm afraid, easier to understand as a parable about the pitfalls of translating London success to New York.

This production is based on a successful recent London revival, of which a haunting set, a powerful actor and an English director have been imported. The ongoing difficulties between England and Ireland probably gave the play an immediacy in London that it lacks here.

Set in 1833 in rural Ireland, "Translations" presents the British at first as a seemingly neutral force. British soldiers have come to prepare maps in which ancient Gaelic place names will be given English equivalents. The "natives," of course, know the mapmaking will eventually have military consequences.

The linguistic impasses the two nations face are a poetic way to dramatize the deeper gulf that divides them. The encounter begins with good will but turns into disaster when a well- meaning British soldier (Michael Cumpsty) falls in love with an Irish girl (Dana Delany).

Like many of Friel's plays, "Translations" has a Chekhovian lack of action. It depends a great deal on mood, which is difficult for actors to convey. A much easier thing for actors to do is accents; since most of the actors here don't even handle that well, it's not surprising that mood is minimal.

One of the conceits of the play is that even though everyone uses English, we are to pretend that the Irish characters are speaking Gaelic (still common in rural Ireland in the early 19th century) and cannot understand English. If the actors' accents were more distinct, the comedy of their inability to understand each other would be clearer.

More important, we are to understand that a large percentage of Irish rustics, at least in this play, are engaged in studying Greek and Latin, which does convey the Irish hunger for poetry. Donal Donnelly, in a small and enigmatic role as an aging reader of Homer, is a past master at this.

Brian Dennehy, alas, is not. As a teacher, Dennehy has the breezy swagger of an old- fashioned beat cop, but does not suggest a Celtic seer, which is what his character is. The play's conclusion, a long "aria," requires a technique and a musical voice he simply does not have.

The strongest performance is that of the English actor Rufus Sewell, as the one local who warily befriends the Brits. His work suggests that British director Howard Davies (who directed the awful recent revival of "My Fair Lady") may have better success with British actors than Americans.

Cumpsty and Delany are both strong, but seldom do any of the actors get beyond the workmanlike.

For an old play to stir us, we must have a sense of urgency Davies has not instilled in this cast.

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