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Comedy About Aristocratic Irish Family's Hard Times Gets Admirable Staging

Aristocrats Play by Brian Friel. Directed by Robin Lef`evre THE Manhattan Theatre Club has enriched the season with its admirable production of ``Aristocrats,'' at Theatre Four. Brian Friel's poignant comedy bids a melancholy farewell to a privileged Irish family down on its uppers. The family's reduced state is symbolized by the crumbling Georgian great house that overlooks the village of Ballybeg, in County Donegal.

On a warm summer afternoon in the 1970s, the O'Donnells are preparing to celebrate the marriage of Claire (Haviland Morris). Irrepressible Casimir (Niall Buggy) has flown in from Germany. Up from London have come alcoholic Alice (Margaret Colin) and husband Eamon (John Pankow), a Ballybeg local who married above himself when he wed an O'Donnell.

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The mature and patient Judith (Kaiulani Lee) runs the household and cares for her senile but still tyrannous Father (Joseph Warren), a former district judge. Mr. Friel has provided an outsider in the person of Tom Hoffnung (Peter Crombie), an academic from Chicago doing a cultural survey of contemporary Ireland.

``Aristocrats'' unfolds with a complex Chekhovian mingling of humor, humanity, and psychological insights. Friel's candid view is not without compassion for a family whose self-contained isolationism from the world around them becomes part of their undoing. Although the O'Donnells are Roman Catholics, they have remained aloof from the stirrings of Ireland's latter-day civil rights movement.

Their connections with lower-class fellow Irishmen like Willie Diver (John Christopher Jones), an accommodating handyman, do not include any concern with the world he represents.

With Father's sudden death, a funeral replaces Claire's wedding on the family agenda. The event also leads to the domestic council at which Judith stuns her kinfolk with her response to their well-intended generosity. But not before the playwright has completed his sensitive family portrait - a group picture vividly realized in the performance staged by Robin Lef`evre, who directed the award-winning London production and who, like Mr. Buggy, is making his American debut.

Although Buggy's brilliant portrayal of the childlike Casimir - with his name-dropping fantasies, nervous impulsiveness, and raptures over Claire's (offstage) addiction to Chopin - creates much of the theatrical stir, the overall result is a true ensemble achievement. Each of the women is made appealing or at least understandable. The male members of the cast, who include Thomas Barbour as silent Uncle George, are equally effective.

The picturesque production features a John Lee Beatty setting, costumes by Jane Greenwood, and lighting by Dennis Parichy.

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