NEW YORK — A BRIAN Friel play requires patience. You can't expect a big payoff; rather, you must bide your time and take pleasure in the lyrical moments that this writer invariably provides amid a sea of verbiage.
In his successful ''Dancing at Lughnasa,'' the scene that typified this was when the sisters began dancing in rapturous fashion.
In his ''Translations,'' which has just opened on Broadway, the second act delivers a scene well worth waiting for. It is a love scene between a young British soldier and an Irish country girl, neither of whom can speak the other's language. Despite this barrier, they are able to communicate perfectly, and the result is one of the most beautiful love scenes in recent dramatic history. Unfortunately, the rest of the play fails to achieve a similar power.
''Translations'' is not a new play, having originally been done Off Broadway over a decade ago. Set in a remote Irish village in 1833, it details the culture clash that occurs when a regiment of British troops arrives to survey the area for a new map. But what they really intend is to Anglicize the place names from the original Gaelic (''Baile Beag'' becomes ''Ballybeg,'' etc.). The inhabitants are none too happy at this intrusion, and they are even less pleased to see that one of their own, Owen (Rufus Sewell), the son of Hugh, the local schoolmaster (Brian Dennehy), is serving as translator for the military.
One of the soldiers, Lt. Yolland (Michael Cumpsty), is a gentle soul who falls in love with the countryside and with Maire (Dana Delany), one of the local girls (it is between them that the love scene takes place), and the childhood sweetheart of Owen's brother. This inevitably leads to tragic circumstances.
Although the story lends itself to powerful drama, its momentum is lost in the third act when a lengthy drunken scene between Hugh and one of his students, the elderly Jimmy Jack (Donal Donnelly), tries the audience's patience. The end of the play is a poetical rant delivered by Dennehy, showcasing his strong technique, but it is more of a theatrical set piece than a fulfilling finale.
The production has been sensitively staged by Howard Davies, and the acting is fine. Rufus Sewell, who was so impressive in the recent film ''A Man of No Importance'' and in the PBS special ''Middlemarch,'' makes his American stage debut. He injects his performance with humor and charisma. Brian Dennehy has comparatively little to do, but he has such an imposing physical presence that we're reminded how much he has been missed on the New York stage. Dana Delany (of television's ''China Beach'') is charming. But the real acting honor goes to Michael Cumpsty, who makes Lt. Yolland, an almost pathetic figure, utterly poignant in his desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with the townspeople.
Friel's sympathies may lie with his Irish characters, but it is with this lovestruck British soldier that he breaks your heart.