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Aristocrats

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Aristocrats, Organic Touchstone Company. Though the conceits of Brian Friel's tragic drama about an upper-class Irish family may be a trifle shopworn, it's difficult to dispute their profound emotional intensity. Even at his most derivative and blatant--Friel borrows from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and introduces a pesky American interviewer only to expose the O'Donnell family's contradictory beliefs--the playwright is so skilled and graceful that his lack of originality is never troubling. In fact, the play's utter predictability may be what makes it intensely gripping.

Employing a passel of self-destructive characters boasting a litany of delicately rendered neuroses--alcoholism, infantilism, pure self-hatred--Friel constructs a fiercely intelligent critique of upper-class society that resonates on both political and personal levels. It's a testament to his talent and humanity that we're able to feel great affection for the characters even as we loathe their shallow values: we know we're in the presence of a master dramatist.

Organic Touchstone artistic director Ina Marlowe has taken a profoundly simple and intelligent approach: cast some of the best actors in Chicago, give them a good script, and let them go to it. Brad Armacost is particularly touching as a middle-aged case of arrested development whose desperate cheerfulness masks incomparable pain and self-loathing. The only troubling element in this otherwise excellent production is Kevin Snow's cramped set, which makes the Touchstone Theatre space seem smaller than it's ever seemed before. --Adam Langer

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