Faith Healer, and my Tony-nominated friend

One of the things I hope to recover when my desktop computer returns is my iCal calendar. I spent a good part of yesterday trying to recall big upcoming events in my life by looking over credit card receipts. To my surprise, I had two tickets to a matinee showing of Brian Friel's Faith Healer this afternoon. Who buys two tickets to a Wednesday matinee?

I spent a futile day trying to find someone to attend an afternoon matinee of serious theater with me, to no avail. Fortunately, a series of glowing reviews, and perhaps the presence of Ralph Fiennes as the lead, had attracted a huge audience this gorgeous afternoon day. I found a taker for my extra ticket in the cancellation queue, a man who handed over a tattered $100 bill with a furtive glance over both shoulders, a gesture that left me feeling like a drug dealer.

Faith Healer is not a conventional play. Rather, it is a series of four monologues or soliloquys. Frank Hardy (Fiennes) delivers the first and last, and in between we hear from Grace Hardy (Cherry Jones) and Teddy (Ian McDiarmid). They each tell stories about the same events, but their recollections differ in revealing ways.

Frank is an Irish faith healer, Grace his wife or mistress, depending on who you believe, and Ted is Frank's manager. They recall a time when they drifted about the Scottish and Welsh countryside staging "performances," as Frank refers to his healing performances.

Frank's healing ability comes and goes. He carries with him a press clipping about one of his triumphs, a time when he healed all ten people who came to him in a Welsh town. Those triumphs surprise even himself, and yet he is haunted by his failures. "I always knew when nothing was going to happen." Frank represents every artist who has prostrated himself at the foot of his Muse in desperation, anger, and incomprehension. For the most part, he paints his past in such grand and overly theatrical prose that one suspects him of artistic vanity and insecurity, but Fiennes manages to flash enough of his self-loathing at the audience to earn its pity.

Grace is both transfixed by Frank's gift and disgusted by his abusive treatment of her. She was a lawyer once but ran off with Frank, drawn to the his magnetism and the allure of the arts. Ted's soliloquy begins the second act and begins with a welcome comic embrace, what with Ian McDiarmid's Cockney accent and ghastly combover.

As the monologues unfold, a sense of dread creeps through the theater. Frank Hardy is a maelstrom into which Grace and Ted have been drawn, and that they are not on stage together augurs badly.

The acting is first-rate. Though I found myself yearning for a close-up shot of some of the actors during their intimate confessions, all three were skilled enough on the stage that their emotions registered with me in row L. Fiennes gives one of the best performances on Broadway by a silver screen star that I've seen in my time in NYC, and I've seen quite a few, and Cherry Jones gives a strong followup to her Tony-winning performance in Doubt. Ian McDiarmid proves that he was no fluke as the best actor in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

The play requires the viewer to pay close attention. At times my thoughts wandered into reverie, and I'd struggle to catch up with the narrative sudoku, trying to balance three competing recounts of various events. It's no simple task for my hyperlink-addicted mind to remain focused on a single storyteller for nearly 3 hours, nor was it a cinch for many of the middle-aged to older audience in attendance this night. At times, the play left me yearning to see the three actors on stage together interacting in a more dramatic situation.

And yet, to structure the play any other way would be to undermine one of the play's more haunting messages, and that is the loneliness of human existence. How could three people who cared so deeply for each other offer such varying accounts of events they were the only people to experience? As each of them twists and kneads their memories on stage, they come to seem like, each of them, a ghost, doomed to forever struggle to communicate to each other across scenes, but doomed to forever appear on stage alone. Only the audience hears all of their stories, and yet the task of weaving them together into a single coherent narrative is like trying to visually resolve an optical illusion.

The old woman next to me dozed in and out, occasionally waking with a start before drifting slowly off again. At the end of the play, she proclaimed grumpily, "I didn't understand that."

"I guess you had to be there," I said.

Happy footnote: Along with the regular Playbill, I was given a special Playbill focused on the 2006 Tonys. I'd already heard the good news from Peter, but seeing it in print was still a thrill. Klara had been nominated for a Tony in the category of Best Scenic Design of a Musical for her work on Jersey Boys. I'll be watching and rooting for her on TV on June 11.

From the Tony website:

Prior to Jersey Boys, Klara Zieglerova designed the set for the Broadway revival of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. This is her first Tony nomination.