Saturday, November 1, 2008

O three of little faith

Gabriel Kuttner, Diego Arciniegas and Susanne Nitter in The Faith Healer. Photo by John Furse.

The Publick Theatre's production of Brian Friel's The Faith Healer has inspired wild accolades from several local critics. Over at the Phoenix, Carolyn Clay pronounced it Friel's "masterpiece;" meanwhile, to Jenna Scherer over at the Herald, it was a "minor miracle."

But to me, it's merely an honorable failure. I'm going to chalk up those reviews to the rote genuflection that occurs before all things Irish in this town; otherwise, it's hard to see how anyone couldn't perceive the play as a thoughtful, but unconvincing, pastiche of Pinter and Beckett, and that even within its dramatic limits, the Publick production, under the direction of Nora Hussey, goes subtly, but seriously, wrong.

The script dates from 1979, and is heavy with the atmosphere of its period: like late Beckett, it's a memory piece, told over the course of four monologues; and like late Pinter, its backstory remains unstable in every specific. The "truth" about what precisely happened to "the Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer," and his poor wife and manager remains constantly in flux - all we know is that the conflicted Francis, who was both con man and, intermittently, the genuine article, laid his last bet on his mysterious "talent," and met an untimely (and horrible) end.

Over this simple story Friel weaves quite a brocade of symbol and theme; Francis, after all, is an itinerant "healer" much the way Jesus was (if less consistently successful) - and his final moments are hauntingly like a sad parody of Christ's moment of truth in Gethsemane. The play is likewise much concerned with the sterility of Francis and his wife, the rather obviously named "Grace," whom Francis likes to pretend is his Magdalene, and there's much gnawing on existential problems of faith and doubt and the self, along with the usual Irish hobbyhorses of exile and homecoming. The trouble is that despite their intellectual dimensions (which are real, if second-hand), the monologues rarely grip us as drama. Pinter, after all, holds his audience through suspense, and Beckett, through poetry; but nothing in Friel's play actually depends on the past - it's all in the past - and his rhetorical flights remain appealing but earthbound.

Still, the play has proved a kind of actor's catnip - there have been far more major productions of it over the past decades than it really deserves, perhaps because it floats, like so much of Friel, in that Broadway "sweet spot" between show biz and genuine art, and also because - well - it offers three actors the chance to bloviate at length and at leisure without having to fool around with anybody else. The Publick offers up its core trio - Diego Arciniegas, Susanne Nitter, and Gabriel Kuttner - in the roles, and they all do subtle work, but only Nitter and Kuttner prove truly memorable in their respective parts.

Which is a serious blow to what's essentially a three-hander, and also kicks out from beneath the text its only real avenue of development. The play must, I think, open with something of the fantastic Francis's charisma, and even his faith, still aflame - we should be able to understand how he held his wife and manager in thrall, and even how he could genuinely cure the blind (indeed, the monologuing structure of the play is itself a concrete metaphor for Francis's own show). The spooky arc of The Faith Healer, in short, is its lead character's journey from spiritual showman to literal spirit - for it's giving away no secrets, I think, to reveal that we slowly realize he is speaking to us from beyond the grave.

But as Francis, Diego Arciniegas is a sallow, defeated presence from square one, and we really can't see how he could cure a common cold, much less blindness. And without any flickering divine spark, his hold over his wife - who left her upper-class life to go on the road, and even stuck with her husband after he abandoned her in labor - is a mystery to match anything in the Gospels. Nitter, for her part, does quite a bit better by the broken Grace, bringing a finely honed level of detail to her desperation and defeat, even if she flags slightly in energy over the course of her scene. Gabriel Kuttner is stronger still as the shambling Cockney manager, Teddy - he cleverly underplays in somewhat the manner of Michael Caine. But then he gets the best of Friel's lines, too, with some hilarious blarney about such past acts as Rob Roy, the bagpipe-playing whippet, and Miss Mulatto, the lady who could talk to pigeons (here, at last, we feel Friel abandon Beckett and Pinter - and Joyce - and find his own, lighter voice). To be fair, when Arciniegas returns with his last monologue, his acting mode is more in synch with the play, and he wrings real pathos from Francis's decision to attempt a cure of the wheelchair-bound McGarvey (nice name, eh? must have been a critic), even though he knows the invalid's thuggish friends will have it in for him when and if he fails. So perhaps at the last minute, both Friel and this production do come partly through - still, up till then, we've essentially been taking the show on faith.

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