THEATRE / Absolute beginners: Paul Taylor reports from Dublin on the premiere of Brian Friel's new play

AFTER the worldwide success of his 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa (recently translated into Japanese), the weight of expectation thrust upon the great Irish dramatist, Brian Friel, was bound to be enormous. As a hard act to follow, the multi-award-winning Lughnasa was up there with the Feeding of the Five Thousand, another feat of inspired mass- catering.

So some of the disappointment I experienced watching his new play, Wonderful Tennessee - which was premiered last week in a production by Patrick Mason at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin - may simply be due to the unlucky mismatch between the scale and clamour of the reception committee and the devitalised, menopausal mood of the work itself. The bulk of the blame, though, must be borne by the drama, which has an abundance of themes but a distinctly dodgy inner dynamic.

The play is concerned, like Lughnasa, with the 'rage for the absolute' and the need in its characters to attest to some 'otherness' that can only find expression, beyond language, in sacred or profane ritual. This new work, however, seems to have got its dramatic priorities the wrong way round.

The five sisters in Lughnasa were firmly established as belonging to the mundane, everyday world of Ballybeg before the great moment when they threw down their chores and burst into an ecstatic, repression-shedding reel to the sounds of a ceilidh band being broadcast on the radio. The spontaneity and naturalness of the event stopped it from seeming too neat a demonstration of the point the play was trying, in various ways, to make: that the primitive impulse collapses the distinction between the secular and the religious.

In Wonderful Tennessee, by contrast, there's a deadening sense (as in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra) that the dramatist's desire to find mythic parallels and illustrate a thesis is dictating what happens in the ordinary world. It's only a slight caricature to say that the piece might be summarised as 'Chekhov meets The Bacchae on a disused pier: sightings of the Absolute reported but unconfirmed'.

True, Mason's excellent cast delineate the various shades of defeatedness well - and the awkward cross-currents in the group of three married couples who spend the night on this deserted spot, singing popular songs and hymns to an accordion, telling stories, and waiting vainly for the boat that was to take them on a pilgrimage to an off-shore island. But the accent falls so heavily on the symbolic aspects of the affair (like a mirage, the lovely island Ecan't be kept in view for long; the boatman who fails to show upTHER write error is called Carlin / Charon etc) that you lose interest in the supposedly primary level of the story. Just before the interval, for example, the depressed barrister Berna (Ingrid Craigie) jumps into the sea. I wonder how many people returned to the second half even vestigially curious about her fate.

Panama hat at a shyly rakish angle, Donal McCann is marvellous as the bookie / concert-promoter who has organised the trip, beautifully suggesting an ordinary chap who feels more than a little awkward to be - as Philip Larkin put it - forever 'surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious'. Catherine Byrne is utterly alluring, too, as Angela, the sister-in-law he'd like to make a lover, though one feels her position as a classics teacher comes in a bit too handy when we need longish glosses on Dionysos or the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Less contrivedly, and thus more movingly achieved, is the way the characters slowly turn the pier into a sacred place, transforming their aborted trip into a pilgrimage none the less. The old lobster- pot weights, for example, which are piled together earlier on for a pitching game, eventually, as the time of departure nears, form the mound for the traditional Irish pilgrim ritual of 'doing the turas'. In the best bits of the play, nostalgia for the numinous is felt without having to preconvert the mundane into the mythic. As somebody says, 'at seven thirty in the morning, the rage for the absolute isn't quite so consuming . . .'

Continues at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (Booking: Dublin 787222)

(Photograph omitted)