… family reunions …

Aristocrats, about a far flung family of O’Donnells converging on the crumbling family mansion in Northern Ireland for a wedding, is wordy and pedestrian — with the exception of one outstanding characterization.

Claire, once a promising pianist, is finally getting married to a much older local commoner with children to raise.  Not surprisingly, she’s depressed, and her alcoholic sister Alice who’s come up from London is not likely to cheer her up.  Their brother Casimir has flow in from Germany, leaving behind a fictitious wife and children — invented cover-ups for his homosexuality and low-level job.

Judith, the third sister, is trapped in the drudgery of tending to the decaying mansion and those who’ve stayed home, Claire, and a sick father whom we know through his domineering and delusional voice booming on the intercom from upstairs, helping us understand why the mother, an actress, committed suicide to escape.  An elderly uncle who wanders around with a passive/aggressive silence adds nothing to the dramatic action, although he’s intended to be part of an unconvincing renewal at the end.

As in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with its similar theme, the aristocrats are has-beens and all vitality is with the commoners, Eamon who married Alice (though he loved Judith, but he’s making a reasonable best of it), and the erstwhile chauffeur, now a successful business man, Willie Driver, who would marry Judith but is reluctant to take on her illegitimate child sent by the father to the orphanage.

Also on hand is an American taking notes on the O’Donnells as a case study in Irish Catholic aristocracy;  maybe he was intended as a scientific-minded foil to a more poetic Irish spirit but this is never developed:  with the uncle, that makes two extraneous characters.

The set, combining a built set, tangible chairs and tables, etc., and photography conveys the former grandeur and current struggles of the aristocrats at home.  The directing is slow-paced.  The acting is on a professional high level … BUT …

If you’re looking for a reason to see this play, John Keating’s evasions as Casimir, the failed law student, are witty, touching, and brilliantly timed.  He has the gift of being hilarious as a character while always, totally, remaining in character.  In an Iceman Cometh moment when his pipe dream is shattered, one sees fully the desperate loss and almost as fast the recovery of the fantasy that allows him to live.  This is a wonderful tour de force of characterization.

It seems natural that in an era of centrifugal spread of families, the theme of distant family members honing in on the ancestral home for a rite of passage has become popular.  It’s a promising motif for expansive studies of character and for revealing the way truths from the past remain active in the present.  Sometimes it works that way, as in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, or the current film Rachel Getting Married, but it can also verge on soap opera as in Horton Foote’s Dividing the Inheritance (reviewed below).  In Aristocrats, the revelations are immediately understood or are too familiar.

Aristocrats plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in East Chelsea, NYC, through March 8.