The New Yorker
CRISIS OF FAITH
Brian Friel on terror and talent.
May 15th 2006
By John Lahr
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

“The artistic life is a long, lovely suicide," Oscar Wilde said. The aphorism came to mind as I was watching the Gate Theatre production of the four eloquent monologues on the paradox of talent which make up Brian Friel's "Faith Healer” (imported from Dublin to the Booth, under the elegant direction of Jonathan Kent). The subject of the monologues is the Irish faith healer Frank Hardy (Ralph Fiennes) ‑ the "Fantastic Francis Hardy," as the threadbare banner behind him proclaims. Frank's speeches are the first and last of the evening; through their evasions, omissions, and confessions, they chart the trajectory of his self‑destruction. Franks wife, Grace (Cherry Jones), and his manager, Teddy (the superb Ian McDiarmid), are the other witnesses to the healings he calls his "performances" ‑ and to the price they all pay for his occasional miracles. Together, these three voices conjure up a shabby world that smells of booze and Primus stoves and stale halls deep with dust and wishes.

As the play begins, coals gutter suggestively in the grate of an upstage fireplace, and the rumpled Frank stands before us in the crepuscular gloom. He carries in his jacket pocket a weathered newspaper clipping, testimony to a "remarkable event" in a Methodist church in a small Welsh town where he cured ten people of ailments "ranging from blindness to polio." As Frank, Fiennes is outstanding. He exudes a natural, reticent magnetism; gaunt and thin, his sensitive features belie a fierce heart. Fiennes's Frank is a compelling bundle of prowess and panic. His blessing is also his burden. The chipper Teddy, who claims to have handled ingenious animal acts, realizes that this client has one thing that his whippets and his pigeons don't: intelligence. "All those bloody brains," Teddy reflects. "They bloody castrated him." Frank’s appealing alertness brings with it a certain self-consciousness about his "ministry without responsibility." He is constantly questioning himself and his gift‑"those nagging, tormenting, maddening questions that rotted my life." "Precisely what power did I possess?" he asks. "Could I summon it? When and how?" In this "feud between himself and his talent," as Grace calls it, the faith healer is a stand-in for every artist: he never quite comprehends the source of his own freakish gift; he can only work, wait, and pray for it to come. In the meantime, both for his audience and for himself, he hides his doubts about his mastery. "You're beginning to masquerade, aren't you?" he says to himself. Frank is certain of only one thing: "I always knew when nothing was going to happen."

 In the course of the play, his inspira­tion becomes more and more scarce; at the same time, his drinking increases, and so does his abuse of Grace, whose love and loyalty he trivializes by referring to her as his "mistress" and by denying the existence of their stillborn son. (Even Grace can't acknowledge Frank's awful abandonment at the moment of the baby’s birth, in the back of a van.) Frank's devotion is not to her but to those rare occasions when he finds himself in miraculous harmony with his talent. "I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself, and in a manner of speaking, an aristocrat," he says. Inevitably, the story of his struggle to recapture his spiritual powers becomes, instead, the story of the loss of a soul.

Sitting at a table, drinking and smoking as she talks, Grace tells us how she ran away with Frank as a rebellion against the stifling punctilio of the professional class into which she was born: her stolid father was a judge and she a newly qualified lawyer when she first met Frank and joined his raffish, peripatetic life. Grace is nervy and fragile and, as Jones expertly plays her, on the verge of hysteria. She is also mesmerized by Frank's performance of sensitivity. "He had a special... magnificence," she says. Grace can share everything with Frank except his creativity. "God, how I resented that privacy!" she says. "Many, many, many times I didn't exist for him. But before a performance this exclusion ‑ no, it wasn't an exclusion, it was an erasion ‑ this erasion was absolute: he obliterated me." Because she envies the inspiration to which their life together is dedicated, Grace unconsciously spoils it. When Frank fails, she becomes a punishing voice, mocking his powers and subverting them with scorn.

In Friel’s brilliant storytelling, the refracted memories of the characters paint a harrowing picture of recrimination and self‑aggrandizement. Lacking the courage to stop performing, Frank lets others make the choice for him. In a much recounted scene, on his return to Ireland, after years of touring through Scotland and Wales, Frank heals a man's twisted finger at a pub. A crowd of onlookers go off to find their paralyzed friend for him to heal. "If you do nothing for him, Mister, they'll kill you," the bartender warns him. "I know them. They'll kill you." Though Frank's intuition tells him that his power won't come through, he nonetheless goes outside to perform for the waiting cripple. The moment plays as both a surrender and a liberation. "I had a simple and genuine sense of homecoming," Frank says. "Then for the first time there was no atrophying tenor, and the maddening questions were silent. At long last I was renouncing chance."


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Ralph Fiennes, Ian McDiarmid, and Cheriy Jones as a doomed trio in "Faith Healer." Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

The spirit of renunciation takes an altogether more frivolous turn in "The Drowsy Chaperone" (deftly directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, at the Marquis), which happens to be the most original musical of the season. The show begins in darkness. "I hate theatre," a voice says from the shadows. The disembodied litany of disappointment continues: "You know there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, "What have George and Ira got for me tonight?' Or 'Can Cole Porter pull it off again?' Can you imagine? Now it’s, 'Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?"

When the lights come up, the knowing, sad‑sack narrator (Bob Martin, who also co‑wrote the book with Don McKellar) is settled in an armchair at the side of the stage, a sort of Mr. Rogers of drama queens. The narrator lives in a cluttered one‑room apartment with window grates, which looks out on a city landscape that is as dreary as his mood. But the minute he puts on a record of Gable and Stein's 1928 "The Drowsy Chaperone" ‑ "Remember?" he says of this entirely fictional musical comedy ‑ his world is renovated. The grates dissolve and the refrigerator door becomes a portal through which "The Drowsy Chaperone" 's garish, glamorous stock characters ‑ low comedians, ingénues, Latin lovers ‑ make their entrance. The narrator is the interlocutor between the play world and our world. The musical takes place in his head. He wanders in and out of the show, at one point even wielding his reading lamp as a spotlight. Sometimes he interjects a piece of historical information or a critical comment, turning the evening into a sort of show with footnotes. Occasionally, something intervenes to burst the narrators bubble; there's a telephone call, the doorbell rings, the record is scratched. "Thank you. Thank you, life," he says bitterly. When the record resumes, the actors pick up exactly where they left off, in mid‑song.

 "The Drowsy Chaperone" cleverly deconstructs not just the folderol of twenties extravaganzas but also the fri­volity of high camp. Here, where the bluebird of unhappiness reigns, the inevitable anthem is "As We Stumble Along." In a fine example of the impish music and lyrics, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the eponymous chaperone (the excellent Beth Leavel) calls it quits with meaning:

It's a dismal little world in which we live
It can bore ya' til you've nothing left to
give
Seven over‑rated wonders
Seven underwhelming seas
Six excruciating continents
Antarctica‑oh, please

With terrific energy and finesse, Lambert and Morrison jump all the formulaic hurdles, and get as close as any songwriters these days to a genuinely show-stopping number. The heroine of the musical within the musical, Janet Van De Graaff (the winning Sutton Foster), is quitting show business to marry the debonair hero, playfully named Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). In "Show Off," amid the pop of flashbulbs Janet protests to the press, "I don't wanna be cute no more/Make the gentleman hoot no more /I don't wanna wear fruit no more/ I don't wanna show off." As she sings, she is put through more hoops than a trick pony. There are a handful of songwriters around who can do witty, very few can do silly. This gleeful stuff is matched by a first‑rate cast of players, especially Danny Burstein, who turns the transparently gay Latin lover Aldolpho into a whirlwind of bogus macho concupiscence. He ricochets around the stage, with the silver streak in his black pompadour ruffling like a bantam rooster's comb.

At the beginning of "The Drowsy Chaperone," the narrator tells us that he always prays at the theatre. "Dear God, please let it be a good show," he says. With its intelligence and its high style, "The Drowsy Chaperone" is a well‑judged answer to those prayers. As it happens, I pray, too. Readers, won't you join me? Dear God, no more musicals based on movies, please. Make the producers more courageous, and keep the actors from thanking You and their loved ones in the program. Almighty Lord, may the ersatz and the "sung‑through" die a horrible death. Amen. And, God, one more thing: in the future, can we have less camp and more joy?


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