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Onstage, happy couples are all alike, as Tolstoy might have put it. But even unhappy couples need to do something—say, be pretty spectacularly unhappy—for an audience to stay interested in them. Unfortunately, Brian Friel’s Give Me Your Answer, Do! honors this cruel law of entertainment mostly in the breach. Although the characters in the play’s three failing marriages have lots of pretexts for skinning each other alive, the lines Friel gives them are banal instead of fiery, more Ordinary People than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And in this damped-down joint production by the Keegan and Fountainhead Theatres, everybody seems far too depressed for verbal swordplay, anyway. The whole thing feels as if it were underwater.

Like many of Friel’s plays (the best-known is Dancing at Lughnasa), Give Me Your Answer, Do! takes place in County Donegal, Ireland. Tom and Daisy Connolly (Michael Replogle and Charlotte Akin) live in a remote and dilapidated former shooting lodge, a nice set by Grant Kevin Lane with bookcases that tower like Stonehenge menhirs and an unhealthy collection of bottomless liquor bottles. Tom’s a fading 50-year-old novelist who’s written 23 pages in the last five years. But it’s Daisy who’s the alcoholic, anesthetizing herself against the mounting bills and her inability to deal with their daughter Bridget’s (Emily Riehl-Bedford) “nervous trouble,” for which the girl’s been permanently institutionalized. A tiny current of feeling still runs between Tom and Daisy, but they behave as if they spend most of their time in separate rooms.

Don’t feel sorry for the Connollys, though—they’re gluttons for punishment. Why else would they invite over Daisy’s parents (her father, played by Stan Shulman, is a kleptomaniac) as well as the aggravatingly successful lowbrow novelist Garrett Fitzmaurice (Jim Jorgensen) and his racy wife, Grainne (Maura McGinn)? David Knight (Carlos Bustamante) is there, too—he’s the acquisitions agent who’s been with the Connollys for five days, wading through Tom’s papers to decide whether the University of Texas library should be interested in buying them. David bought Garrett’s papers for a king’s ransom a couple of months back, giving Garrett ample opportunity to gloat. “It’s not a party,” Daisy keeps insisting. No kidding.

This crowd overflows with vanity as well as the bitterness of curdled hopes. Tom calls himself a writer of “integrity, high-mindedness, probity—yes,” his purity pained by how little these things matter in the world. Gin-soaked Daisy feels marooned: She can barely manage to visit Bridget, read trashy novels—no passive-aggressiveness there!—or go out for groceries. (“You have no idea how much planning goes into that,” she tells her mother.) She seems ripe for an affair, if she could find anybody in the Irish wilderness to have it with. Both Tom and Daisy are the kind of people who quote Chekhov and play Mendelssohn records and then act disappointed when others don’t know the source.

Tom, having heard about Garrett’s big payday, was jealous (and desperate) enough to invite David out to have a look at his archive. But the waiting for David’s verdict is driving him nuts—”What did Mr. God say?” he queries Daisy after David leaves the room. When Garrett and Grainne blow in, looking like parvenu fashion victims, they provide the perfect hate objects for Tom and Daisy. And the feeling’s mutual: “A major minor writer?” wonders Garrett, of how David sees Tom. “For God’s sake, not a minor major writer?”

Later, talking to David, Garrett’s the epitome of condescending generosity. “Tom Connolly is a considerable writer!” he announces. “No, wait: Tom Connolly is a terrific writer. Tom Connolly deserves a break!” Naturally, no one can stand Garrett, least of all his wife. Things are so bad between them that they’re actually sniping about the quality of their sniping.

So the table is set for a feast of delicious nastiness. But Friel and the production serve it up only in teaspoons. For one thing, he doesn’t have the stomach to make his characters monstrous. He gives them each a few zippy digs, but in his effort to humanize them, he also dwells so much (and so quickly) on their foibles that they end up merely pathetic.

Friel also wants his play to teach us about creativity and compromise and the human condition and blah blah blah. His imagination for Answer is so cliched, though, that he can only come up with devices that shout “Hypocrisy!” or “Repressed!” or “Avoidance!” (Daisy’s tendency to play cheerful or lugubrious music at the most awkward moments is one of many wince-inducing examples.) And the ending, in which Daisy suggests that “affirmation” would be the worst thing for Tom’s creativity, is pure romantic horse hockey—not to mention nutty as a fruitcake. In trying to skewer middlebrow sensibility, Friel shows himself its hostage.

Still, Answer has more wit and fun than this Keegan/Fountainhead version gives it. Leslie A. Kobylinski’s direction seems nonexistent except when it’s overobvious. She hasn’t given her actors basic feedback: Replogle, for instance, swallows many of Tom’s lines and can hardly be heard at times, even from the second row. The cast reads other lines so flatly that they convey just a ghost of their original humor. The actors (with the exception of Bustamante as David) drift, doing their own things instead of knitting together. Kobylinski has misread the play: It needs to be loud and outsized, but she’s turned the volume way down (except for the actual music, which occasionally drowns out Tom and others).

The individual performances leave a lot to be desired, too. Friel gives Tom a tremendous amount of fertile bitterness, but Replogle (who looks like the great Irish actor Colm Meaney) plays him almost without any frustration or grandiosity. He’s far too self-contained—almost meek. Akin’s Daisy has a wonderful face for disappointment, with bruised, pleading eyes, yet Akin just sags into her role, as well, playing much of it slumped in a deck chair as if watching the ocean from a cruise ship. What’s missing is the spark in her, the exuberant person she could have been that gives pathos to the wraith she is now. Jorgensen is a game Garrett (wearing his money in a typically apt costume by Lane), but he strains to convey the character’s simultaneous pomposity and cowardice. Bustamante has a nice moment when his David reveals why he really needs Tom to accept his offer. But only Linda High as Daisy’s mother, Maggie, has a consistently refreshing snap to her.

Friel is the redoubtable gray eminence of Irish playwriting. But it’s instructive to compare the rather generic Answer with the other Irish play now being produced in the area, Conor McPherson’s The Weir (at the Round House Theater). In The Weir, McPherson created an intricate and rousing and beautifully written script that could have been about nowhere except Ireland—its provinciality, its male pub camaraderie, the interplay between its great storytelling and its uncertainty over its own identity. The Keegan Theatre, whose artistic vision includes bringing Irish plays to Washington, would do well to consider mounting other McPherson works, particularly his stunning Port Authority. With McPherson and Martin McDonagh and even Friel, nobody is writing better plays than the Irish at the moment. But Give Me Your Answer, Do! isn’t one of them. CP