PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Faith Healer: Friel-Wheeling and Real

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Faith Healer: Friel-Wheeling and Real First-nighters are ill-equipped for real life—that’s why we go to the theatre—so it inevitably comes as rude awakenings to our stage fantasies-in-progress. Hence, Faith Healer required more faith-healing than we expected May 4 at the Booth Theatre.
Cherry Jones; Brian Friel; Ralph Fiennes; Ian McDiarmid; Ben Vereen; Terrence McNally; Martin McDonagh; John Patrick Shanley; Christopher Meloni; Maria Friedman; Rachel York; Neal Jordan; Sarah Paulson.
Cherry Jones; Brian Friel; Ralph Fiennes; Ian McDiarmid; Ben Vereen; Terrence McNally; Martin McDonagh; John Patrick Shanley; Christopher Meloni; Maria Friedman; Rachel York; Neal Jordan; Sarah Paulson. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Midway through the Cherry Jones portion of the program, there was some sort of medical emergency in the premium seats down front, and a woman was rushed for the exit by a phalanx of friends. Unthrown and thoroughly professional, Jones pressed on.

“Well, what’s a girl to do?” the actress said helplessly a few hours later at the rather subdued after-party at the Bryant Park Grill. “I felt so badly for the dear woman—whom I actually know—and she’s going to be okay. And she’s going to get a call from all of us tomorrow to reassure her. Everyone dealt with the situation so beautifully, I thought.”

Stuff happens, and, on both sides of the footlights, one deals as well as one can. “The night that The New York Times was here,” she recalled, “there was a poor woman who had a horrible coughing fit in the front row—dead center—and I felt as badly for her as I’m sure she must have felt for me. I wish that I could have offered her some of my whiskey.”

Brian Friel’s 1979 play is a quartet of interlocking monologues that ruminate "Rashomon"-like over the same incidents, and Jones’ is the 90-proof one that comes up second. She plays a woman—wife? mistress?—who travels the backroads of Scotland and Wales with a charismatic (if not always consistent) faith healer and his Cockney manager.

Ralph Fiennes, in the title role, bookends the evening with two monologues, and Ian McDiarmid opens the second act with his recollections that clock in at almost an hour. The Faith Healer was born on Broadway but only lingered for 20 performances, and this revival is to set the record straighter, if not straight. “I think, unashamedly, that it’s one of the great plays of the last 50 years,” declared its director, Jonathan Kent, who obviously engineered its second coming. (The raves in the morning papers and the tough-ticket status the show now enjoys for its limited run through July 30 make him right as rain.)

“It’s wonderful to bring it back to Broadway where it was first premiered. What’s great so far is that people are coming in droves, and it seems at last to be finding its audience.”

One of the most striking things that Kent has accomplished with this noble resurrection is the intimacy of the acting. All three hands relay their respective stories as if they were in a camera close-up. “Well,” he quickly pointed out, “that’s a wonderful theatre. You can have intimate acting there. And, listen—I’ve three of the best actors of their generation.”

The frail Friel, at 77, made the scene with use of a cane and was plainly pleased with the revival, but he wasn’t selling the original short just because its run was short. “It didn’t last long, but James Mason was very good,” he said. The Faith Healer would be the last stage appearance of Mason, as well as that of his wife, Clarissa Kaye.

Fiennes’ approach to the role is closer to the vest, more one on one, than Mason’s—and therefore closer to the audience. “That’s the only way I can do it,” he remarked. “It has to be like you’re hearing it from me to you directly. The reason that any of us is speaking is because the audience is right there. The only reality is that you are there—the audience.”

Aside from a chance to work again with Kent (who steered his Hamlet to a Tony Award), Fiennes is fiercely attracted to the play itself. “I think it is Friel’s best. It’s biblical in its scope—in its ideas about love, death, parents, children, partnership, mystery, faith, faith-healing. It’s a big play.”

The major revelation of the production is the show-stealing work of McDiarmid, making his better-late-never Broadway debut at age 61. (Donal Donnelly, it has to be said, mercilessly made out like a bandit in this role as well in the original production.)

“I’m very, very fond of this character,” McDiarmid admitted. “We did this play in London about five years ago when Jonathan Kent and I ran the Almeida Theatre. We did it as one of our last productions. It’s a play we’ve loved a long time, and Brian Friel really enjoyed that production so we decided to have another go—in Dublin and on Broadway.

“They are wonderful words, and they may have found their time now. It’s a play that’s very close to Brian’s heart and his wife’s heart. I know they’re happy to be here with Jonathan’s production. So we hope a lot of people will come see it and like it.”

McDiarmid’s credits—which include five villainous roles in the "Star Wars" series and an Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Einstein in Insignificance—go on for five inches in his Playbill biography, so a Theatre World Award as one of 2005-6’s New Faces may seem a little silly, but he qualifies nonetheless. “This is my first time on an American stage. In fact, I’ve never actually worked in the United States before. I’ve done a few American movies, but they were always filmed in England or Australia or Europe.”

At the end of his considerable credits is the line: “Ian McDiarmid is appearing with the permission of Actors’ Equity.” He nodded and smiled. “Yeah, well, I’m grateful to them for letting me come. We have lots of actors who are very welcome in England so it’s nice to have a few more be welcomed in the United States. Having had a taste of Broadway, I’d love to come back some day.”

Oscar winners Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand and Steven Soderberg and Tony winners Zoe Caldwell, Ben Vereen, Jane Alexander and Brian Stokes Mitchell headed the guest list, along with three playwrights of varying degrees of Irishness—Terrence McNally, the riding-high Martin McDonagh (who has yet to read the raves for The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and John Patrick Shanley. Also: Christopher Meloni, Anna Wintour, Lily Rabe, Maria Friedman (whose gig at Cafe Carlyle commenced May 3), Peter Dinklage, director-choreographer Martha Clarke, Rachel York, directors Neal Jordan and Doug Hughes, Constantine Maroulis and Calvin Klein.

Shanley remembered and rued the day he let the original Faith Healer get by him. “I’ve kicked myself ever since that I didn’t see it because I loved James Mason so much,” he said, “but I was poor so I couldn’t buy a ticket. But I did read the play then and it has stayed with me, and tonight I finally saw the text illuminated for the first time. It’s magic.”

Like McDonagh, Shanley is giving playwriting a rest and turning to movies. “I’m doing a movie with Norman Jewison this summer called `Accordion.' It’s about a woman who plays the accordion. It takes place in New Orleans after Katrina, and we’ll be shooting it there.” (Jewison directed a Shanley script to an Oscar for "Moonstruck.") Sarah Paulson, leading the cheers in Cherry Jones’ corner, said they won’t be touring together in Doubt. “I’m doing ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ for NBC. We just found out today we’ve been picked up so I can’t do the tour. I would have loved to have done it, although I can’t imagine anyone could top Heather Goldenhersh. But she won’t be doing it, either, because she’s doing a TV series, too—‘The Class’ for CBS.

Brian F. O’Bryne hasn’t decided if he’ll do the Doubt tour. “I hope he does,” said Jones.

My favorite moment at the party was my fast encounter with Zoe Caldwell, around whom some stage-return rumors are swirling—so, What’s up, Zoe? “Oh, who knows?” she shot back, accompanying that with a grand shrug that completely disguised the brush-off I was getting. C’mon, Zoe. You’ve got a fifth Tony Award performance in you!

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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