It's an Irish Spring on Broadway; Three Stunning Plays from the Emerald Isle

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Byline: Cathleen McGuigan

Stooped and shabby, he slips quietly onto the stage, but when the title character in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer" starts to speak, he becomes a magnetic force field. Brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, with burning eyes and long fingers tracing lines in the air, he has you hooked. Or is it hoodwinked? Even Fantastic Francis Hardy, as the healer is billed, isn't sure whether he has an "awesome gift" or is simply a "con man." Or a con artist. Whatever else he is or isn't, Frank's a genius of a storyteller. This mesmerizing play, about an Irishman who performs in dreary hamlets in postwar Scotland and Wales, is structured as separate monologues by three characters: Frank never interacts onstage with Grace (Cherry Jones), the woman who adores him despite his drinking and cruelty, or with his manager Teddy (a heartbreaking Ian McDiarmid). Instead, each brings to life a version of the haunting events that lead to doom when Frank finally returns to Ireland.

Last week, "Faith Healer," to no one's surprise, was nominated for a Tony award as best revival (it had played briefly in New York in 1979). The Tony nods underscored what a terrific Broadway season it's been for meaty plays--and three of the best are Irish. Besides "Faith Healer," two other powerful Irish works are up for best play against the leading contender, "The History Boys." They are Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and Conor McPherson's "Shining City." At 77, Friel is Ireland's finest living playwright, but the stunning work of McDonagh, 36, and McPherson, 35, signals a vitality in Irish theater not unlike the early 20th-century heyday of J. …