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Review: In ‘Aristocrats,’ an Irish Dynasty Confronts Reality

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On a summer lawn outside Ballybeg Hall, the O’Donnell siblings loll under lemony sunlight perfect for a family reunion. A wedding has lured back two of the émigrés among them, but Claire, the bride-to-be, has always lived at home.

Her intended is a local man, decades older, whom she does not love. A widower with young children he wants her to raise, he has promised her a car for Christmas, and days full of nothing to do. None of which matches the dreams she once had of channeling her musical talent into a performing career.

“He’s buying a piano so that I can teach the children to play,” Claire says, the flatness of her voice the barest camouflage for her anguish. “Maybe one of them will become a concert pianist?”

This is what the wan remnants of an Irish Catholic dynasty look like in Brian Friel’s play “Aristocrats,” set in the mid-1970s amid the tumbledown glamour of the O’Donnells’ grand old homestead, in the hills above Ballybeg, County Donegal.

Charlotte Moore’s revival at Irish Repertory Theater, where she is the artistic director, is thwarted by a casting misstep; more on that shortly. Even so, this exquisitely knowing, distinctly Chekhovian play about lies and illusions handed down as history still has the power to grab us.

This generation of O’Donnells and the ones that came before it have habitually looked down on Ballybeg and its people. But the family’s money has long since run out, and these grown siblings were not raised to fend for themselves.

In a sickbed upstairs, their father (Colin Lane) lies moaning and ranting, his once sharp legal mind ravaged by a stroke. Over a baby monitor in the study, we hear him muttering at Judith (Danielle Ryan), his exhausted daughter and constant caretaker, whom he no longer recognizes.

“Let me tell you something in confidence,” he says, poisonously. “Judith betrayed the family.”

“Did she?” Judith says mildly, as if it were nothing to hear this accusation — an allusion, perhaps, to her fighting the police early in the Troubles, or to the child she bore out of wedlock, then placed in an orphanage. Maybe both.

The O’Donnells do not ordinarily deal in truths, preferring the romance of their own much-embroidered mythology. It speaks of a glorious past and utters not a whisper about matters like suicide, mental illness and conditional love. Let alone whomever Casimir (Tom Holcomb) — sole brother to Judith, Claire (Meg Hennessy) and Alice (Sarah Street), a lonely alcoholic Londoner — is really making a life with in Germany. An inveterate fabulist who remains terrified of his father, Casimir seems to have invented the wife and three children whom the family has never met.

This production, which is part of Irish Rep’s season-long Friel Project, never does cohere, despite plenty of persuasive acting, including by Tim Ruddy as Alice’s husband and Shane McNaughton as the working-class local who dotes on Judith. Charlie Corcoran’s set and Michael Gottlieb’s lighting are lovely.

Yet in a play that is so much about culture and place, our suspension of disbelief is shattered repeatedly by the garrulous Casimir sounding like he is straight out of the American Midwest, his Irish accent disappearing for nearly the entire performance I saw.

As the O’Donnells well know, make-believe requires collusion. But there are some pretenses we cannot will ourselves to buy.

Aristocrats
Through March 3 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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