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New York City Theater

"Faith Healer"
Booth Theatre

A failure in 1979 even with James Mason, "Faith Healer" is now a whirlwind, skin-crawling event from Dublin's Gate Theater. Unfortunately, only two of its three actors draw the audience into Brian Friel's strange and dangerous world.

Ralph Fiennes, who gives a jaw-dropping performance as a charlatan who discovers the perils of going home again, is joined in brilliance by Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine in "Star Wars"). But the estimable Cherry Jones is mis-cast and seems to be in a different play entirely.

Although the evening lacks conventional dramatic structure – it consists of four monologues – the tales it tells twist and devour themselves. On the surface, it's the story of a mountebank who claims he can cure people of their afflictions.

His name is Frank Hardy. In his opening monologue, he sketches his itinerant background: his wanderings through Wales and Scotland, the death and burial of his baby son, the death of one of his parents (mother? father?) and his eventual return to Ireland where he has both his final triumph and his final doom.

Next up is Jones as Grace (Frank's wife? mistress?), the judge’s daughter who recounts her tortuous journey with the aggressive, drunken con man she loved. "Faith healer," she says, "I couldn’t even begin to apprehend it – this gift, this craft, this talent, this art, this magic." And we realize she's talking not just about a healer of affliction but an artist. Jones is a skillful actress but she's not only too healthy, too sturdy for the role, her accent varies and she's unconvincing as an Irish woman.

Then there's Teddy, Frank’s manager who, perversely, plays a recording of "The Way You Look Tonight" to open meetings of the maimed, the halt and the blind. Whether relating stories about his two dogs, a "brilliant poodle" and a "retarded whippet," or drinking bottle after bottle of beer, Teddy purports to give us the lowdown on Frank and Grace. As McDiarmid so superbly plays him, Teddy is a droll, pathetic pouf with dyed hair and an absolute belief that "friends is friends and work is work and never the twain shall meet."

Finally, Frank returns to finish his harrowing story. On a darkening stage, he meets his rapture. Fiennes, so confident at the beginning, so friendly and impish, here become a towering tragic figure, sinewy and sensuous. You don’t dare look away. Not everyone will cotton to this brooding production but those who do will thank director Jonathan Kent for bringing a poetic vitality to this essentially static script.

-- David A. Rosenberg
May 14, 2006

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