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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Give Me your Answer, Do!" An Inside View of Writers by Brian Friel
directed by Kyle Donnelly
The Roundabout Theater Company
Gramercy Theater
127 East 23rd Street,New York City
opened October 5, 1999
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden October 6,1999.
Brian Friel, the eminent Irish playwright who has enjoyed many New York productions in the last couple of years, is indeed a fascinating writer. "Give Me Your Answer Do" at the Gramercy theater is a small gem, somewhat flawed but nonetheless worth a visit. Friel's command of sophisticated language, psychological insight, and ironic attitude towards writing and writers make a refreshing adult experience in the theater.

Friel is anything but generous to his chosen profession. His writers are ego-centric, selfish, self destructive, delusionary people. Tom Connolly (John Glover) is supposedly a brilliant but financially bankrupt writer living with his long suffering wife, Daisy (Kate Burton) in abject poverty. Shut away in a hospital is their mentally ill daughter whom Connolly (but not his wife) visits regularly. He has an imaginary conversation with the girl, who remains mute and uncomprehending. (This odd relationship is one of the play's mysteries) Connolly is given the chance to be free from poverty by selling his considerable archival material, that he and his wife are counting on, but when the deal is done, they are strangely hesitant. Their friends, the successful writer Garret Fitzmaurice (Gawn Grainger) who did sell his papers, and his wife (Helen Carey) come to visit the Connollys. Ostensibly content with his life, Fitzmaurice publishes successful rubbish, a fact to which his wife constantly refers. Underneath all the babble, both couples are dissatisfied with themselves and their lives. The writers are insecure about their talent and consumed by jealousy and competitiveness. Their wives are self sacrificing women trying to conceal their husband's weaknesses and difficult marriages by feigning contentment. Everyone drinks --all the time--by the end of the play everyone is in a drunken state delivering self-pitying speeches on the one hand and pretending joviality on the other, coupled with outrageously vicious remarks.

The shabby looking Connolly is happiest when he visits his psychotic daughter and invents stories to amuse her. The successful Fitzmaurice is happy when he is nasty and sarcastic, all the while pretending to be a jolly good friend. The archivist, Michael Knight (Michael Emerson), suffers from anxiety; a strange, nerdy guy, he confesses he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and will be fired if he doesn't "capture every Irish writer's" archives for the university that employs him. Into this mess, comes Daisy's parents with their own troubles and their own regrets (Lois Smith and Joel Grey) and plainly, they are a mismatched pair.

In the first act, Friel cleverly creates a certain amount of suspense. Little by little the characters' true lives are exposed: their lies, and self delusions, their hypocritical friendships, and nasty marriages. (One is reminded of "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf.") All the characters are failures. Depending on alcohol to get them through the day, they are unable to shake their once lofty, ambitious dreams. The main tension is whether Connolly will sell his archival material and thus be saved from total poverty.

Unfortunately, in second act, the story loses its force. The main ideas have already been expressed and a resolve is required. But Friel cannot find a proper or logical ending. Everything is left hanging ambiguously. And this is unsatisfying. Did Brian Friel want only to indulge in some personal vendettas, and afterwards was so was burnt out, he couldn't find a solution?

Despite this serious weakness, the evening is engaging and the performances are first rate. Kate Burton's long suffering wife is outstanding, as is John Glover's perfect depiction of a lost but luminous talent. Gawn Grainger is completely believable as the obnoxious successful writer. However, Joel Grey and Lois Smith as the odd couple are miscast. Grey is a good actor, but has nothing of the Irish song and dance man about him that his character demands. He is completely American and completely adorable. Ms. Smith seems uncomfortable in her role, and somewhat out of the play.

Brian Friel is a serious writer so one expects more depth and a larger meaning to his work, other than a skilled depiction of some unappetizing writers who at times are amusing, but finally are not too compelling. That is not to say that the play is a failure. It is still an intriguing piece of work. And certainly should be seen. [Croyden]

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