Theater Review: ‘Two by Friel’

The heartbreak of love
December 19, 2018 Updated: December 25, 2018

NEW YORK—Irish Repertory Theatre’s director Conor Bagley linked together two darkly romantic plays by the late, wonderful writer Brian Friel: “Lovers: Winners” (1967) and “The Yalta Game” (2001). Though each differs from the other on the surface, they share a deeply laid melancholy thread, for “Does true love ever run smooth?” to quote another universally cherished writer.

“Lovers: Winners” is set in a small village in Ireland. Here a very young couple, each aged 17, meets to go over their studies on a high hill overlooking the town of Ballymore. Joe (Phil Gillen) is very serious about his studies, as he plans to go on to teach “maths.” Mag (Aiofe Kelly) is looser and carefree, for her major concern is their forthcoming marriage, to take place in three weeks’ time, and which will set the seal on the soon-to-be-born infant she carries, which she has conceived by Joe.

Interspersing their initially aimless chatter are brief readings by an older couple seated up left of the young people. They are played by actors Aidan Redmond and Jenny Leona, who will later appear as the lovelorn couple in “The Yalta Game.” They soberly read what may be a news release related to the couple.

Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly, and Jenny Leona
(L–R) Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly, and Jenny Leona in Irish Repertory Theatre’s “Two by Friel.” (Jeremy Daniel)

As the play progresses, there are hints of future trouble brewing between Joe and Mag. We never get a chance to find out, and neither will they, for fate intervenes in an unforeseen way, as is so often the case in life.

Two by Friel-Yalta Game
Dmitry (Aidan Redmond) and Anna (Jenny Leona) meet and play the Yalta game, at Irish Repertory Theatre. (Jeremy Daniel)

‘The Yalta Game’

“The Yalta Game” is loosely based on the Chekhov short story “The Lady with the Lapdog.” An attractive middle-aged man, Dmitry (Aidan Redmond), often sits at a cafe on the terrace, watching the other tourists pass by. He amuses himself by imagining who they are and what their lives are like.

Into the picture strolls a lovely young woman, with a small dog on a leash. She is Anna (Jenny Leona), from a small town near Moscow. The two, both of whom are married to other people, strike up a conversation. One thing leads to another.

Luckily, perhaps, Anna is soon called back home, as her husband has developed a minor illness. But, like moths to a flame, Anna and Dmitry are drawn to one another and continue to arrange meetings.

It gets to the point where the usually blasé Dmitry cannot break the thread of their relationship, and Anna fears the day when they must surely part, but she cannot bring herself to end it.

What had begun as a pleasant interlude has become a heavy load around both their necks—a kind of never-ending, bittersweet torture.

In this production, both plays, though gentle and soft on the surface, exuded a kind of hypnotic fascination and a sweet melancholy for what might have been.

Performances, under Bagley’s detailed direction, honored the material, with highest kudos going to Aidan Redmond for his impeccable portrayal of Dmitry, the conflicted cad.

The intimate space of the Rep’s downstairs W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre was just the right venue for this program, which featured a simple set by Daniel Prosky and lighting by Michael O’Connor.

‘Two by Friel’
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W 22nd St.
New York
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)

Diana Barth writes for various arts publications, including New Millennium. She can be contacted at