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Faith Healer at the Booth Theatre

Twenty-seven springs ago, in April 1979, Brian Friel's Faith Healer was given twenty performances before closing. The formidable Josť Quintero directed, and James Mason starred, with Clarissa Kaye and Donal Donnelly. But the play bombed. Writing in the April 16 issue of The New Yorker, Brendan Gill praised the production but complained that it was miked. His review gives little hint, however, as to the unpopularity of the play. Perhaps it is suggested in his first sentence:

People who complain of the scarcity in contemporary theatre of plays that are well written and well made had reason to be grateful last week for the arrival, at the Longacre, of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

We have come a long way since 1979, to a livable truce between two Broadway camps, and serious theatre is no longer the preserve of Off-Broadway. Top-billed stars can apparently revive anything. Julia Roberts is the strange cause of a revival of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, which I remember finding not particularly interesting at MTC almost ten years ago - notwithstanding the presence of Patricia Clarkson and the convincingly wet rainfall. Ralph Fiennes has done the same for Faith Healer, with Star Wars veteran Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine) to help out; for those impervious to Hollywood marquees, Cherry Jones will be an appetizing lure. It's hard to believe that, this time, Faith Healer won't be a success.

I've recently written about John Patrick Shanley's Defiance, an MTC offering with no great names in the cast that I nevertheless found so riveting that I couldn't write about it without throwing up loud spoiler alerts. Faith Healer is a good night of theatre, but it is no Defiance, so I'll be coy about it until the end of the run. The difference is primarily one of economy. In the interval between Faith Healer's two Broadway productions, playwrights have developed amazing short-cuts to dramatic payoff, and a play such as Defiance dares to play with the expectations that audiences have learned accordingly. I don't attribute the increasing compression of meaning to some generalized outbreak of Attention Deficit Disorder among theatre-goers, but even I no longer complain about one long act with no break. We've recovered something of the power of Greek drama by reaching the climax in one tense, bolting arc.

Or maybe it's just that the seats in the Booth Theatre are vastly less comfortable than MTC's. Faith Healer was experience by me as primarily long. I've ordered a text, which I'm thinking of photocopying and submitting to the blue-pencil process. Of Irish extraction myself, understand the love of one's own voice, but I expect playwrights to do what Mr Shanley does, and resist the urge to say something twice just because it sounds good. Many things are said several times in Faith Healer. To some extent this is unavoidable, given the play's Rashomon-type structure. And at least with regards to one line - "I knew that nothing was going to happen" - the haunting repetition twists the phrase into a ghastly irony. But there are many instances in which the speaker's assumption that the audience hasn't heard the story yet because it hasn't heard it from him (or her, as the case may be) amounts to an indulgent abuse. 

If you want to, you may consider Faith Healer a parable about the difficulty of being an artist, and never being sure when inspiration will strike again. Longing for a kiss from the muse makes some artists hateful to the mortal creatures about them. Turn this idea around, an Faith Healer reminds us that good things can come from bad people. Someone who has been cured of an illness is not going to inquire into the character of the healer; no more so ought we to judge artworks by their makers. Enlarging the "meaning" of the play is certainly a way of making it somewhat more attractive, but in the end, I think, such allegorizing is just baggage. While I could grasp the conceit easily enough in the theatre, it became harder to capture afterward.

There are four parts to Faith Healer, each one a monologue. That's right; at no time are two or more characters on the stage. Nothing happens; the success of the show depends entirely upon the actors' ability to make their stories fascinating. Ms Jones and Messrs Fiennes and McDiarmid succeed, helped by the fact that they tell the same story in three very different ways, but toward the end of the third monologue I began to feel exhausted. I still cared about the drama, but I was suffering. The longing for a blue pencil distracted me for nanoseconds, just long enough to irritate. At the same time, I realized that the monologue form has become much more familiar to theatre audiences. It must have been positively rebarbative in 1979, when even plays without much action offered interaction.

Here, the interaction occurs in the audience's mind. Frank Hardy (Mr Fiennes) stands in a stark hall with a few chairs and the banner that he used to announce his itinerant performances as a faith healer. Looking unkempt and uncomfortable in his suit and tie, Frank sketches his career and becomes excited only when assuring us that the people who came to be healed hated him. Frank, who is not very nice, thrives on being hated, perhaps because it licenses his own cruelties. (It must be noted that neither God nor any organized religion is ever mentioned.) Mr Fiennes has no trouble with this kind of role; he won a Tony for doing Hamlet in Broadway's most recent production (1995), and indeed he invests the tawdry Frank with more than a little Shakespearian glamour. Presently a curtain drifts across the stage - this division between parts is endearingly reminiscent of shoestring productions in family rooms - and Mr Fiennes and his chairs have been replaced by a spotlit Ms Jones, sitting in a dining chair with a small table at her side and the banner behind her. This is Grace, Frank's mistress - or perhaps his wife - and she is a wreck. Without explanation, Mr Friel conveys the fact that Grace is no longer part of Frank's faith-healing troupe (for which she swept, made tea, and collected donations.) She covers the same plot points that Frank introduced, but not without changing the significance of each one. To say much more would be to spoil the surprises that are integral to enjoying Faith Healer, but I think I can say that I've never seen Ms Jones just plain let go and wail. She's very, very good at it.

After the intermission, the running curtain discloses Teddy (Mr McDiarmid), Frank's manager. Teddy's version of things is for the most part quite comic, resting somewhat heavily upon cockney mannerisms. Proof that the Irish aren't the only folk afflicted by the gift of gab, Teddy insists at one late point on (re-)telling a story from the beginning; I gasped at the audacity. I had expected Teddy's piece to be short and sweet, but it is not, and nor is Frank's concluding monologue. By now, we've concluded that Frank has come to a terrible, violent end, but also one that worked as a release along Tristan und Isolde's lines. Dead is the place to be for Mr Friel's sorry scroungers. And although, strictly speaking, Faith Healer is no tragedy, it does have a tragic grandeur that compels you to forgive its longueurs the instant your on your feet applauding the cast.

This production of Faith Healer comes to us from the Gate Theatre Dublin. Jonathan Kent directs (as he did Mr Fienne's Hamlet). Jonathan Fensom (sets and costumes), Mark Henderson (lighting), Christopher Cronin (sound), and Sven Ortel (the video on the curtain) do everything to highlight the drama, and not a bit more; the production looks as starved of comfort as its characters. There's a contempt for comfort, too, that's nicely communicated. It was the playwright's contempt for my comfort that rankles still. (April 2006)

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