A curtain depicting a barren countryside scene in winter glides across the stage as eerie, vaguely Gaelic music plays. After the curtain disappears, a lone, shabbily dressed figure stands in the middle of a cavernous room intoning the melodic names of Welsh villages. This atmospheric opening sets the eerie scene for the current revival of Brian Friel's word-heavy monologue play Faith Healer. First produced on Broadway in 1979 starring James Mason, it ran for 20 performances. After a hit run at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, this new incarnation is set for a limited Broadway run.
That's wise of the producers. An open-ended engagement would probably not fare well, even with the starry names Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones on the marquee. Friel's two-hour-and-45-minute talkathon is a bone-wearying sit. Written in the format of four soliloquies -- a style that Irish authors seem to dote on -- the play details the stormy career of Frank Hardy (Fiennes), the titular itinerant curer of ills. With his devoted wife, Grace (Jones), who is a former solicitor and the daughter of a disapproving judge, and his Cockney manager, Teddy (Ian McDiarmid), Frank travels the back roads of England and Wales attempting to perform -- with occasional success -- medical miracles. His journey comes to a violent end when he returns to his native Ireland. The Rashomon-like perspectives on those events form the meat of the monologues (one each for Grace and Teddy, two for Frank).
Friel endows the trio with the Irish gift of gab. They ruminate at length on what it means to be Irish and how it differs from being English, the nature of talent, faith versus pragmatism, their twisted love for each other, Grace's miscarriages, her stillborn baby, and numerous other topics. It's a tall order to make all this solo talk dramatically exciting. The thought often crossed my mind, "Why didn't he just write it as a novel?" The events are all described instead of played. It's an inherently nontheatrical context.
Director Jonathan Kent, his high-wattage ensemble, and the flexible lighting design of Mark Henderson almost bring off this monumental task. For much of the play's quartet of scenes, the action does come alive and the actors bring conflict to their talking jags. Fiennes raises Frank's alcoholic self-hatred to the surface by aching degrees, and Jones pushes Grace's hysteria down by means of cigarettes, whiskey, and the tiny details of her blighted life.
McDiarmid makes the strongest impression. Best known on this side of the pond as the lizardlike emperor in the Star Wars films, the actor demonstrates his decades of experience by crafting a character both highly theatrical and deeply natural. He is putting on a performance and casually conversing with the audience simultaneously. He does have the benefit of Friel's funniest lines, including hilarious anecdotes about the bizarre animal acts Teddy has handled. Like a skilled surfer, McDiarmid rides Friel's waves of words, but even he isn't able to stay afloat for the play's entire interminable running time.
Presented by Michael Colgan & Sonia Friedman Productions, The Shubert Organization, Robert Bartner, Roger Berlind, Scott Rudin, and Spring Sirkin at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. May 4-July 30; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. U.S. casting by Jim Carnahan, CSA.