STAGE REVIEW : 'Aristocrats': an Irish Tale in a Chekhov Mood : Drama: Taper's production offers a compelling view of a family in decline, but the plot is overpowered by portraiture and superior acting.

TIMES THEATER WRITER

The first word that leaps to mind upon seeing Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Aristocrats" at the Mark Taper Forum is Chekhovian .

True enough. This languorous tale of impoverished landed gentry nostalgically reunited at the homestead in remote County Donegal could almost pass for a loose Irish adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" or "The Three Sisters" (there are three sisters here--and a weak brother to boot). It has all of the obligatory complex moods: the rue, the wistfulness, the longing for a lost innocence and childhood, the bondings, the memories, the laughter and the terrors.

And yet the strongest evocation that came through at Wednesday's press preview was of another play entirely: John Driver's and Jeffrey Haddow's unjustly neglected "Chekhov in Yalta," a fictional comedy based on the playwright's final years that was a highlight of the Taper's 1980-81 season. Like "Yalta," "Aristocrats" has the same self-mocking subtext, the same gentle cautionary humor, the ability to smile in the fading twilight of an era.

It makes sense. The Russian and Irish temperaments--especially the so-called black Irish--are very much alike: avuncularly sentimental, morose yet capable of extravagant panache, often at some terrible personal cost.

We are contemplating not so much the fall as the erosion of the O'Donnell dynasty of Ballybeg, a small town perched at the bleak northern tip of western Ireland.

It might as well be Siberia.

The "big house" on the hill, Ballybeg Hall, is the decaying estate of District Justice O'Donnell, who lies doddering in senility in some upstairs bedroom, looked after by his unmarried daughter, Judith (Christine Healy).

Two of the "children" have come home for the wedding of the youngest sibling, Claire (Joycelyn O'Brien), to a man of the town--a greengrocer.

First we meet Casimir (John Larroquette), the sweet, ineffectual brother, self-exiled to Germany by virtue of his marriage to the German Helga, who has given him three German sons. Then we meet Alice (Kate Mulgrew), who married a Donegal lad, Eamon (Andrew Robinson), with whom she now lives in London.

There is a fourth sister, Anna, a missionary nun in Zambia, whose presence comes to us only on audiotape (Rachael Dowling). Other members of the extended household are eccentric Uncle George (Ford Rainey), family friend Willie Diver (Raye Birk) and a supernumerary--a Chicago scholar working on a study of the Irish upper classes, whose presence is never more than superfluous (a waste of the fine John Vickery).

Friel's play turns on a fairly predictable axis. It's not the plot that interests us in this unraveling of a once proud family but the players--a sad, sometimes comical lot who feel life is passing them by without quite knowing why.

In the course of its three acts--one too many--we do learn to know them: Judith's overprogrammed loneliness, Willie's unspoken love for her, Eamon's lingering spoken love for her (before he married Alice), Alice's drinking problem, Claire's potentially tragic compromises and the fanciful Casimir's wasted life as kinder machen to his sons and part-time food processor, married to something of a Nazi bowling alley cashier.

There's that and more. But must this essentially simple and straightforward play take so long to draw its conclusions?

Really, no. Friel's fine talent for portraiture and the superior acting company at the Taper make it all relatively painless. Director Robert Egan is good at making sure the focus is on rich evocation rather than action, but why is the dramatically uninvolved John Vickery character a part of this elegy? As a witness to the fall of the house of O'Donnell? Unnecessary. It also takes everyone else too long to arrive at the confessions that are the climax of these family plays. Virtually nothing has happened by the end of Act 1 and not much more by the end of Act 2.

Robinson's many-faceted Eamon and, in particular, Larroquette's giddy Casimir, with his seductive embellishments of the past, his purposeful if faulty memory, the games he still plays with kid sister Claire and his spirited, jumbled frailties, are the reasons we will remember "Aristocrats." They are also the reasons why Friel wrote the play--that caring and careful filling in of endearing detail. It is, one senses, a fond and personal rite of passage--a lament for a dying world. And Mark Wendland's Ballybeg Hall, with its rows of double windows, its patches of sky, its deep green grass and tall mosses, is sufficiently abstract yet sufficiently real to stimulate our imaginations into doing the rest of the re-creation.

As a production this "Aristocrats" can hardly be faulted even if it is, in the end, a flawed play. How much you respond to it will depend entirely on how attuned you are to mood pieces. But if you like Chekhov, chances are good that you'll enjoy "Aristocrats."

At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends July 1. $22-$28; (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300; TDD (213) 680-4017).

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