Why combine these two one act plays? Lovers: Winners is traditionally part I of 1967’s tandem Lovers: Winners and Losers, showing young, then middle-aged love, both doomed. I’m unfamiliar with part II, but pairing makes sense. The second play chosen here, 2001’s The Yalta Game (adaptation of a Chekhov short story), manifests a couple who fall into unexpected love at 40 and 20, then struggle against previous commitments. Director Conor Bagley writes that the production is about “lives brushing us against one another.” I’d call that inaccurate.
Lovers: Winners is a slight, if sweet tale, disjointed by two narrators (Aidan Redmond and Jenny Leona), one representing Joe, one, Maggie. The device hauls us out of action too often to allow for emotional investment. More successful, The Yalta Game unfortunately features similar removal as Dimitri and Anna sometimes describe their characters’ actions. That direction finds them half-breaking the fourth wall, i.e. talking at us without actually looking in anyone’s eyes, further alienates. Both stories have charm and pathos prevented from full realization.
Maggie (Aoife Kelly) is 17, unmarried, and pregnant. She and the baby’s father, 17-year old Joe (Phil Gillen), will be married in several weeks time. Both have been expelled from high school, but are allowed to take final exams. They meet one lovely, warm day atop a hill overlooking Ballybeg (Friel’s common setting) in order to spend time and study. Joe, the smarter and more ambitious of the two, intends to do just that, while Maggie prattles on without taking a breath or cracking a book.
Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly
The girl’s subjects range from local gossip – including tall tales she represents as real, to the couple’s future. Joe vacillates from warm response, to frustrated chiding, to angry recrimination – “You tricked me into marrying you.” They even insult each others’ parents.
Each time the pair makes up, eventually wandering down the hill in search of exuberant, afternoon adventure. Dialogue is credible, the two are sympathetic. Meanwhile, narrators fill in backgrounds and tell us what surprisingly happened the rest of the day. We ricochet back and forth from present to future. Don’t, the play suggests, take happiness for granted.
Of the two actors, Phil Gillen appears more natural, if too loud for the space. Imitating a dozen denizens with relish and skill, he also manages to inhabit frustration, guilt, annoyance, and affection turning on a young dime. Facial expression is often priceless. Aoife Kelly’s Maggie is a bundle of nerves. It’s difficult to tell whether this is the actress’s own nature or distinctive portrayal. I admit this is a fine line, but something doesn’t read authentic. Pencil fidgeting and the look on her face when Maggie gets away with play acting are both notably grand. Narration is fine.
The Yalta Game
Aidan Redmond, Jenny Leona
Forty something Dimitri (Aidan Redmond) is a charming, sophisticated Moscow lothario who vacations in Yalta once a year to recharge and have a light affair. He opens the play by regaling us with conjecture about lives of those frequenting the town square while taking coffee every day. Opinions are wry, somewhat snobby, imaginative. Twenty something Anna (Jenny Leona) is fresh meat. She arrives with her precious Pomeranian, a gift from the older husband left in a small town, until he can join her.
Dimitri circles, seduces, and pounces with patience and experience. Though Anna feels remorse, she nonetheless succumbs, falling in love. We watch the relationship develop, aware the two feel differently about what’s occurring. Eventually, Anna must go home to her ailing husband. While we expect her to continue fantasizing about Dimitri, neither we nor he anticipates being unable to move on from Anna.
A reliable staple at Irish Rep, Aidan Redmond gives us a character who raises an eyebrow in speech rather than action. He is, in fact, smooth and thoroughly captivating. One might wish for just a bit more heat and yearning in the character’s besotted second chapter. Jenny Leona seems to intermittently lose focus. Tears appear to be technique. When Anna gushes at Dimitri’s appearance, however, we believe every moment. Perhaps the actress will find more consistent ground as the run continues.
Jenny Leona, Aidan Redmond
Director Conor Bagley utilizes his limited performance area well, especially during the restlessness of the first play. Small stage business is genuine. Characters relate. Pacing is well crafted. I don’t understand the fourth wall choice of The Yalta Game raised above.
Daniel Prosky has designed a Set that applies to The Yalta Game, not Lovers: Winners. Surely something reflecting both might be created. China Lee’s Costumes suffer from the same mistake.
Sound/Music Design by Ryan Rumery adds splendid subliminal atmosphere.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Aoife Kelly, Phil Gillen
Two by Friel- Lovers: Winners & The Yalta Game
By Brian Friel
Directed by Conor Bagley
Through December 23, 2018
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street https://irishrep.org/
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