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An Irish Boy Is Philly Bound, But Can't Shake His Loved Ones

By Frank ScheckSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1994



NEW YORK

PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME! Play by Brian Friel. Directed by Joe Dowling. Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Criterion Center.

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THE central conceit of Brian Friel's early play, ``Philadelphia, Here I Come!,'' now being revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is a charming and theatrically vivid one: The lead character, a young man named Gareth, or Gar, is played by two actors. One plays Gar in Public (Jim True), the other plays Gar in Private (Robert Sean Leonard). The latter expresses the character's innermost thoughts, and often leaps around the stage in anguish while the Public Gar just seems quietly reflective.

The device lets us see the character's contradictions and inner torment even better than playwright Eugene O'Neill's use of spoken asides to convey private thoughts, such as the ones in ``Strange Interlude.'' In the Friel play, the two aspects of the same person nearly come to blows over their differences.

That unique device is what sets ``Philadelphia'' apart from many other such memory plays, giving it a vitality and humor that offset its melancholy subject. The production at the Roundabout never fully captures the humor of the play, but it does not miss the drama. Indeed, directed at a sluggish pace by Joe Dowling and lasting nearly three hours, it closely resembles an O'Neill play.

The setting is a small Irish village in the early 1960s. It's the night before Gar is set to leave his hometown for the mysterious possibilities of a job in a Philadelphia hotel. As he prepares for his life-changing journey, he reflects on what it will mean to him to leave the most important people in his life: his widowed father (Milo O'Shea), a reserved, emotionally undemonstrative man who has wrapped his life in routine; the loyal, faithful, sharp-tongued housekeeper and surrogate mother Madge (Pauline Flanagan); and his various friends, including his hard-drinking male buddies and his ex-girlfriend Kate (Miriam Healy-Louie), who married another man when he couldn't commit to her. Even as he is about to leave and possibly never see her again, the Public Gar is unable to express his feelings, much to the disappointment of the Private Gar.

``Philadelphia'' is, as is standard for this gifted writer, filled with wonderful language and situations, and this early work (1964) is free of the pretension that has marked his recent efforts. The lyricism and high spirits of the play are only fitfully achieved in this production, which is more concerned with its melancholy aspects. True, there is a great deal of sadness in the work, particularly toward the end, when Gar must face the fact that he is leaving everyone he has ever loved. But there is also an optimism and spirit of expectation inherent in his journeying to a land filled with possibilities.

Jim True is a bit too morose as the Public Gar, while Robert Sean Leonard tends to overdo it as the Private Gar, although his excesses seemed to please the audience. The supporting cast is filled with top-notch veterans, even in the smaller parts, all of whom do excellent work. It's too bad, though, that Milo O'Shea, a wonderfully vigorous actor who doesn't perform as often as he should on the New York stage, is here playing such a repressed character - as effective a portrayal as it is.

Once again, the Roundabout should be commended for reviving an important play, here receiving its first major revival since its Broadway premiere 28 years ago.

The Roundabout's upcoming season includes works by Williams, Moliere, O'Neill, Herb Gardner, and Sondheim's landmark musical ``Company.''