Set in 1833, Brian Friel's engrossing drama "Translations" anticipates by several decades the protracted state of war between Ireland and England collectively known as "the Troubles." But trouble is clearly in the air as British soldiers arrive in the sleepy County Donegal hamlet of Baile Beag with colonization on their minds.
Mr. Friel, an incisive playwright whose wistful, vaguely Chekhovian works typically keep politics at arm's length, addresses cultural imperialism gingerly in his 1980 work, using a sputtering school in what comes to be called Ballybeg as a metaphor for the looming obsolescence of Irish culture. Director Garry Hynes follows his lead, crafting a well-paced, suitably raucous potboiler that slips in cultural commentary with admirable stealth. Not even a handful of over-the-top performances can dampen the bracing effect of her empathy for Mr. Friel's boisterous, doomed villagers.
In the eyes of the doddering Hugh (Niall Buggy), who leads evening classes from the first floor of his home whenever he's sober enough, the modern world appears to have gone off the rails sometime around the time of Pliny. Some of his grown-up students may be plugging away at their multiplication tables or similarly basic tasks, but the vast percentage of Hugh's pedantic tutorials are devoted to Latin and ancient Greek. "I am a barbarian in this place," he moans, quoting Ovid, "because I am not understood by anyone." The large stone hitching posts that rise up from the dirt floor of his converted barn might as well be gravestones for the dead languages and moribund skills being taught there. (Ms. Hynes makes wonderful use throughout of Francis O'Connor's simple set, redolent of peat and disuse, as well as Davy Cunningham's painterly lighting design.)
A promised national school in the area will certainly put both Hugh and his longsuffering adult son Manus (David Costabile) out of work. Manus, who shoulders much of the school's day-to-day work, is interested in becoming headmaster at the new school, if for no other reason than to keep his dissatisfied lady friend, Maire (Susan Lynch), from leaving town.
The more immediate concern, though, is the arrival of the English sappers, who are under orders to create a codified map of Ireland for taxation purposes, a process that includes Anglicizing the Irish place names. (It is here that Ballybeg, the town familiar from so many other Friel plays, gets its name.) The wide-eyed Lieutenant Yolland (Chandler Williams) may not speak the native language — Manus's prodigal brother, Owen (Alan Cox), has joined the soldiers' payroll as a translator — but he has fallen in love with the sound of it, along with the sight of Maire.
Much of the play's conflict hinges on the same breed of treacherous cross-cultural miscommunication that has proved so irresistible to movie awards groups in recent years ("Crash," "Babel"), though garden-variety human weakness is more to blame here than the vicissitudes of fate. The English don't understand a word of Irish, and the opposite holds true for most of Baile Beag's inhabitants. The catch is that Mr. Friel presents both languages in English (the occasional flights of Greek and Latin are the exceptions); he and Ms. Hynes, without resorting to comically broad accents or other short cuts, do a wonderful job of conveying to the audience just how foreign the characters sound to one another.
With its incantatory lists of Irish towns and barely understood yearnings, "Translations" has much in common with better known Friel works like "Faith Healer" and "Dancing at Lughnasa." But he shifts away from the minor-key discontents of those plays, and embraces instead the forbidden passions and murky crimes of melodrama. It's hardly Mr. Friel's subtlest work (although his use of exposition should be taught in playwriting classes), but it is among his most robustly affecting. Ms. Hynes, who chipped away at the accumulated layers of "significance" on fellow countryman John Millington Synge's work in last summer's "DruidSynge" marathon, is nearly as successful in balancing Mr. Friel's more somber moments with the pleasures of a good yarn.
The prime example of this is a superb courtship scene in the second act. Maire and Yolland have fled a dance, out of breath and giddy with excitement, and their pathetic stabs at speaking each other's language shifts gradually into rapturous confessions of love. Ms. Hynes makes deft use of the wide Biltmore Theatre stage to convey the linguistic distance between the two, and despite her employment of humor to leaven the mounting tension, the scene remains the sexiest five minutes on Broadway right now.
Ms. Lynch gives Maire an austere melancholy that, while forgoing the easier pleasures of a more typical ingénue, rings true and makes her character's determination all the more plausible. (She heads a uniformly strong female contingent, with Geraldine Hughes and Morgan Hallett delivering memorable supporting performances as two fellow students.) Mr. Williams may overdo the gawky-swain routine a bit, particularly when Yolland dips into a bottle of the local poteen, but his naivéte toward what he sees as the simpler cadences of Irish life — "a consciousness that wasn't striving nor agitated, but at its ease and with its own conviction and assurance" — remains touching.
That streak of hamminess also afflicts several other male roles, notably the randy, classics-spouting codger Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley). Mr. Buggy's soused headmaster fares only slightly better, although Mr. Friel's scenes for him and Jimmy Jack — particularly a final scene drenched with metaphoric palaver — are tough sells for any actor. (Brian Dennehy and Donal Donnelly fared no better in a 1995 Broadway production.) Messrs. Costabile and Cox are both convincing; their sibling relationship bristles with the right mixture of affection and wariness.
The lush melodiousness of Mr. Friel's dialogue often obscures just how downbeat his plots can be, and "Translations" is no exception. Even when his usually keen ear for narrative eludes him now and then, those plangent cadences — offered in the canny form of two mutually distrustful languages — remain potent. They make it easy to become lost in "Translations."
Until March 11 (261 W. 47th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-239-6200).