Brian Friel's latest play, Give Me Your Answer, Do!, falls midway between such sublime work as Translations and such miscalculation as Wonderful Tennessee. One problem is that Friel is beginning to repeat himself: Themes and motifs from earlier plays float about like gossamer in Indian summer. Chekhovian memories also abound, adding cobwebs to the old manse in Ballybeg in and outside of which most of the action seethes. Once again, there are ostentatious classical-music guessing games and a chilling rain of quotations drenching the dialogue.
Eight of the nine characters are variously damaged goods -- a greater profusion and intensity than in previous Friel plays. Tom Connolly is a fine but undervalued novelist on the verge of destitution. He and his embittered, gin-swilling wife, Daisy, have a catatonic daughter, Bridget, who drains them both financially and emotionally. What may once have been a good marriage is corroded by compound failure. In contrast to this is the marriage of the Fitzmaurices: the pandering, wildly successful novelist Garret and his acidly sniping wife, Gráinne. While the Connollys still harbor the embers of affection, the Fitzmaurices are all acrimony, if not indeed loathing.
Finally, there are Daisy's parents, the Donovans: Maggie, the brilliant medico laid low by marrying down -- Jack's pianistic career never extended beyond cocktail lounges. His mind now wanders like his thieving fingers; Maggie is filled with understated horror as Jack prattles on. Three such wretched couples constitute an old Friel topic in Albee-esque overkill.
But the lone bachelor is no better off. David Knight, an American purchasing agent for the University of Texas, is buying up the manuscripts of Irish writers. Having already acquired the Fitzmaurice papers for a lavish sum, he is now examining the Connolly ones, albeit with a cryptic attitude, and "Give me your answer" is directed initially at David, though it will have deeper meanings later. David suffers from an unnamed illness, part physical, part psychic, aggravated by worries about his future. Though he forces himself into cheerfulness, his edge-of-the-abyss hysteria will burst out.
All this is hard enough. Darker yet is that Tom can eventually summon up love only for his vegetable daughter, on whom he lavishes adoringly cockeyed stories as well as other gifts she can make nothing of. (Shades of Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.) He denies these expansive feelings to his warmth-starved wife as a poisonous play ends with a climactic dose of hemlock.
Under Kyle Donnelly's expert direction, only Joel Grey's Jack seems not quite in the right key. Lois Smith (Maggie), John Glover (Tom), and Michael Emerson -- an actor whose excesses work for David -- are securely on target. Gawn Grainger and Helen Carey make the Fitzmaurices impeccably peccant, and Kate Burton, a steadily growing actress, lets us in on a moral grandeur collapsed into booze and blowsiness but, like a medieval castle, impressive even in ruins.
Thomas Lynch's set is superb down to its last shabby-genteel detail, and Kenneth Posner's lighting, like Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, doesn't miss a trick. But some of the play's final answers seem to me improbably and impractically noble. Somehow, the Racinian mode does not suit Brian Friel.