Translations, Biltmore Theatre, New York

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On most nights, the theatre offers relief from celebrity culture; on Broadway, we’ve had to endure inexperienced movie luminaries only twice (Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore) this past year. The advantages of a star-free zone, like the one offered up by Garry Hynes’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations, are manifold: chiefly, it is easier to believe that the performers really are the characters they play.

In Friel’s three-act drama, set in rural Ireland in late August 1833, I had no doubt that Niall Buggy was the tippling schoolmaster Hugh; that Alan Cox was his son Owen, an English-Irish translator for British engineers who have come to re-map the area with English place names; or that David Constabile was Hugh’s destitute other son, Manus.

And if Hugh’s adult pupils, scratching their slates with Latin and Greek, are by and large slightly underwritten by Friel, the actors who play them – especially Michael Fitzgerald as the doltish Doalty and Geraldine Hughes as the flame-haired Bridget – behave with a sincerity that banishes most thoughts of sketchiness.

Hynes’s production also makes some of us forget the tepid Broadway revival of 1995, in which a dirt-poor village had a school with shiny desks arranged all in a row. This time the earthiness is intact, both in the peat-moss floor that the designer Francis O’Connor provides and in the animal flirtatiousness that Susan Lynch, as the local beauty Maire, supplies in her climactic scene with the English lieutenant Yolland.

That scene, in which Maire and Yolland struggle to speak the other’s language and use Gaelic place names as endearments, has earned a place as one of the most romantic moments in contemporary drama. It does not disappoint here, even though Chandler Williams, throughout most of the evening, imbues the officer’s love of Hibernia with a dewy-eyed ecstasy that might embarrass even the Irish Tourist Board.

Thank heaven the other actors express emotion more judiciously: this approach allows the play to emerge as a rich exploration of language more than as a diatribe against the political costs of English occupation – the easy interpretation. ★★★★☆

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