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Empathy

June 11, 2012

Original Broadway windowcardDancing at Lughnasa is a short play, but it feels longer than a Hamlet movie marathon. Its universal themes of missed opportunity, regret, and the inability to act on ones own convictions would seem captivating enough, but no. The recent musical Grey Gardens tackles the same themes much better by employing two important elements: empathy and characterization.

It may seem unfair to compare Dancing at Lughnasa to a musical that came along fifteen years later, but it seems to me that Tony-winning plays should be time-testable. Like many modern playwrights, Friel hasn’t written a play here, but a self-important exploration of his own disappointments. Where Grey Gardens spends its entire first act inviting us to recognize both ourselves and our mothers in Little Edie and Edith, so that their decline into poverty, madness, and sorrow somehow becomes our own, Friel gives us a group of cookie-cutter sisters with one out-of-wed-lock child and a ne’er-do-well baby-daddy between them. They begin the play no worse off than where they end it. And nowhere in between can we find a point of empathy. Our narrator, the little boy grown up, simply takes us through his fond memories of one summer in the 1930’s, when hope sprung eternal. That is, until it was crushed under the heavy boot of reality.

Unfortunately this play is so unrealistic and lacking in heart that it their demise can’t even be depressing, merely annoying. Keep your strange Irish tragedy, I’ll take more Grey Gardens, please.

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