PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Translations — Nothing Lost in Hynes' Sight

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29 Jan 2007

"Shut up!" the bantamweight Garry Hynes blatted blissfully into the mike when she took to the stage of the Hard Rock Cafe Jan. 25 to greet the jubilant first-nighters who had just attended the opening of her new version of Brian Friel's Translations at the Biltmore.

"There are words in Irish as well," she postscripted as a mock warning, but "shut up" was enough to quell the ovation starting to form in front of her and turn it into hearty laughter.

Translations is a tragedy of miscommunication, of not finding the right word — and it's set in 1833 in Irish-speaking, British-occupied Ireland when a lot of that was going on. English army engineers were swarming over County Donegal, remapping and renaming it (basically, Anglicizing it, robbing it of heritage, foreshadowing "The Troubles" ahead).

"Everything I do in theatre as a director comes from Ireland," she told the gathering. And Ireland tends to come with her more often than not. Hynes is a leading importer of Irish dramaturgy, becoming in 1998 the first woman to win the Tony for Best Director (for The Beauty Queen of Leenane) — a distinction seconded, literally seconds later, by Julie Taymor (for The Lion King). For 14 days last July at Lincoln Center, she presented "DruidSynge," the complete works of J.M. Synge — six plays in eight and a half hours.

Her Translations sprang from stateside teamwork between Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove's Manhattan Theatre Club and Emily Mann and Jeffrey Woodward's McCarter Theatre Center. It went up first at the McCarter, then moved to MTC's Broadway home.

MTC's subscription audience assures that the play will run three longer than the 25 performances it logged up in 1995. Back then, it was star-cast to last — with Brian Dennehy as the besotted hedge-school headmaster, Rufus Sewell as his son who translates for the British, Donal Donnelly as a classics-spouting crony and Dana Delany as an America-craving colleen. All of them gave a decent account of themselves, but the performance that stole their thunder (and the whole show) came from Michael Cumpsty, who has gone on to become one of our best and most perpetually employed stage actors.

The part invites wonderful acting — and gets it again, from another next-to-unknown: Chandler Williams, who has done a handful of Off-Broadway roles (most notably, the Leopold part of the fictional Loeb-and-Leopold in the recent Rope). Here, he is on the receiving end of a senseless and violent act as an impressionable young English lieutenant who falls in love with the Irish landscape, the Irish language which constantly eludes him and that Irish lass who longs for America (played here, beautifully, by Susan Lynch).

"That love scene in the second act is the jewel in the crown, isn't it?" Williams beamed. He and Lynch express their ardor swapping Gaelic place names back and forth — an utterly unexpected language of love that is lilting, poignant to watch and wears well in memory.

That was the scene that won him the role and got him, at last, to Broadway. "I do feel I have crossed a certain threshold — especially tonight — and I have Garry Hynes to thank 100 percent for it," he said. "She was magnificent. When I auditioned, she didn't know me from Adam. I walked in. She said, 'Hi, Chandler. Nice to meet you. Would you just read this for me now?' Usually, it's a getting-up-running-around-sweating audition kind of thing. I just sat down and read the speech from Act II. She closed her eyes and crossed her arms and never looked at me once. She just listened to me. Then I finished the speech — it was, like, three pages — and she opened her eyes, and she said, 'All right, great work, thanks for that.' And I left, and I thought, 'I've lost it.' And I got cast!"

Alan Cox is also marking his Broadway bow — in the same role that marked Sewell's debut: the Irish translator who's the lieutenant's immediate superior. Sewell's second Broadway appearance will likely occur in the fall, recreating his 2006 Evening Standard Award-winning performance of a music-loving Czech in Tom Stoppard's most recent London hit, Rock and Roll. When it transfers, Cox's pop, Brian Cox, may come with it.

"My old man's Broadway debut was doing Strange Interlude in 1985 with Glenda Jackson at the Nederlander," said the 36-year-old offspring. "Then, by coincidence, another show that he had done in London — Rat In The Skull — was done at The Public, so he was over here doing two shows back-to-back and got picked by Michael Mann for "Manhunter." (It was in that film that he became the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter, the dubiously celebrated cannibal-killer that subsequently won Anthony Hopkins an Oscar.)

Cox pere has seen Translations twice — at the McCarter and at the Biltmore. "He's so excited by the show," said his son, who's a solid performer like the "old man."

Yet another Broadway newcomer is Geraldine Hughes, whose open-face, out-there, Renee Fleming-kind of beauty is largely camouflaged as one of the students taught in the dirt-floored home of the hedge-schoolteacher. "It's lovely to play in that world," admitted Hughes, "in the peat in the bare feet. It's beautifully designed by Francis O'Connor, and Davy Cunningham, who lights operas, makes it look like a Rembrandt or something."

It's such a jolt after her last acting job: Sylvester Stallone's love interest in Rocky Balboa. (Spoiler: Adrian has bought the farm.) "I play a single mother from Philadelphia, and now I'm playing an Irish peasant in 1833. It doesn't get more extreme than that, does it?"

She had the stage all to herself Off-Broadway when she did her much-cheered one-woman show on more contemporary English-Irish conflicts, Belfast Blues, but she loves charging away on all cylinders with a good ensemble. "There's an old Irish Saying — 'We have great craic.' C-r-a-i-c. It means fun. We have such craic on the stage — right on the stage. It's amazing. And Garry's brilliant. She is such a treat. I'm so glad I got to work with her. That was part of the attraction of doing this play for me."

David Costabile, who plays the headmaster's crippled son and assistant, is likewise full of praise for Hynes: "She's a wonderful director. She really lets you do your thing, and then she comes back and says, 'No, I don't like that, do that other thing you did before.' She'll shape it the way she wants it. Very collaborative, very easy to work with. And she liked my accent. That's why she let me on board — that, and The Look. She looked at me in rehearsal and said, 'God! You look like you're from Donegal. I can't believe it.'"

Heading the cast of ten, artistically as well as alphabetically, is Niall Buggy, doing a bravura job as the boozy headmaster. The Irish actor tends to win awards here in Friel roles; the week he put in at Lincoln Center doing Friel's adaptation of Uncle Vanya earned him the Irish Theatre Award, and the milquetoast he played in Aristocrats (no "The" and no joke) got him an Obie, a Time Out Award, a Drama Desk Award and the Clarence Derwent Award. "I think he's our greatest living playwright, really," the actor said.

Also, "I love New York, you see." He held out his hand and showed a special ring. "This ring here belonged to Siobhan McKenna, who was my greatest and dearest friend. She died in '86, and she loved New York also. When I was doing the play tonight, I thought of her. I have her picture in my dressing room. Anytime I'm in New York, I think of her."


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