Before it reopened last week, the biggest unanswered question about the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s now-controversial production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come” was “Why?”
Why did the theater revise, without permission, Brian Friel’s play while it is still under copyright protection? And what did director Frank Galati and Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards think they were gaining in the changes they were making?
Galati cut out two intermissions and a key scene with three characters and trimmed some other dialogue and monologues, while adding some Irish songs. It was all an effort, I assume, to make the 50-year-old play resonate for a modern audience.
Those changes certainly resonated with Friel’s agent, the publisher Samuel French, which issued a cease and desist order to the theater. The agents turned down Asolo Rep’s request that they see the show first, so the theater quickly shut down the production and sent the cast back into rehearsal to restore the play to the way Friel wants it.
Now that the play has reopened with the full script — what cast member David Breitbarth dubbed “Philadelphia, Here We Come Again” in a Facebook post — the main question is whether all those efforts were worth it.
On opening night, I enjoyed the production and performances. But I felt something was missing in the overall storytelling and the emotional connections between the main character, Gareth O’Donnell, and the various friends and family members that we meet in the 12 hours before he leaves his small Irish village for a new life of opportunities in America.
The revised version maintains the beauty of what I saw opening night, but is more involving and compelling, which makes me wonder even more why the changes were made.
The biggest cut involved Gar’s Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Con, and their friend Ben in a flashback to the day they invited the young man to move to America and live with them. Aunt Lizzy is a main ingredient in that scene, while Con and Ben add a little flavor without saying much. I can understand why Galati thought to cut it, but the play gains so much more with the scene.
It’s difficult to discern after one viewing all the smaller or subtler changes that were made, but the production overall provides audiences a richer experience.
I am still stunned by the turn of events because it involves Galati, a director for whom I (and most of the theater world) have tremendous respect. I have yet to see him stage a bad production. And I would tend to trust him and his approach.
Now that the show has reopened, I’m hoping that he’ll be open to talking about why the changes were made in the first place.
I still question comments Edwards made in an interview when he said he took some blame for not keeping a closer eye on the production. I’m not sure how much he knew about all the details, but he certainly knew that characters were being cut because casting decisions had to be made months ago. The decision to run the play without intermission came closer to the opening, as I understand it.
I also was told last summer that Galati planned to add some music to match what he has described as the musicality of Friel’s script. Gar still sings or conducts to music being played on his phonograph, but other songs have been cut.
Two intermissions also have been restored, and with them, the play runs a little over two hours.
I initially didn’t think it was a big deal to remove the intermissions (I tend to like shorter runs times), but that’s apparently a violation of copyright laws, too, when they’re part of an author’s stage directions. Intermissions establish rhythms and dramatic build-ups.
Galati is passionate about Friel’s play, which is what adds to the confusion about why it needed to be “fixed.”
The whole situation has been a blemish for Asolo Rep just as it has been gaining increased recognition for its work, some of which has included revising shows that have been neglected in recent years.
News of the Asolo Rep’s problems circled around the Internet, and included a harshly critical commentary by Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, who planned to review the show before his scheduled performance was canceled.
Some have called the theater callous for its actions. I would say foolish is more fitting. All these problems could have been avoided if the theater trusted the material it was working with. And if it doesn’t trust the material, then why produce it, or change it without necessary permission?
The final result proves that “Philadelphia” didn’t really need improving. Maybe all the chatter about it will increase audience interest. It is a sweet, touching story.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.