It’s time for part two of the Enda Walsh Festival at the Studio Theatre. I was lucky enough to open this Festival with Penelope – you probably know how much I loved that experience. And, afterwards, I got to meet the playwright himself, the delightfully charming, demure, self-effacing Mr. Walsh. If the order of the plays were reversed, I think our affable conversation would have been quite different. More on that later.
Now it’s time for Part II, the Walworth Farce – and quite a different milieu from Penelope, too – a run-down flat in a tower block on the Walworth Road, London, in rainy England. Part III – The New Electric Ballroom kicks of April 13 – and I can’t wait. If Ballroom is as brilliant as Penelope and Walworth, then we are very much in luck.
As for the Farce, I…I don’t know quite how to start. Let me just say that if you’re in the mood for dizzying, bravura theater that will leave you with a knot in your stomach, this is for you. Otherwise, don’t worry, there’s Shear Madness playing somewhere.
I have seen my share of blood-soaked theater productions in my time – more than my share, probably. So how is it the Irish manage to make them both hilarious and harrowing in equal measure (see also, the Lieutenant of Inishmore) is beyond me.
The play opens, much as Penelope, with the main characters inhabiting their space, quietly going about their business as we try to puzzle out the scene. Three characters, all men, preparing themselves for…something…two of them are younger, flanking an older gentleman in the center. The room is completely run-down, piles of clothes, shredded carpet and broken walls, and a grimy front door. The young man on the left is slender, tall, and ironing a sundress. The young man on the right has a head shaved to look as though he’s balding, belying is youthful features, and is looking horrified into a plastic shopping bag holding a large salami. The older man in the center is wearing an out-of-date suit, and polishes his worn, black leather shoes. What the hell is going on?
Suddenly, they spring to life, and begin acting a play within the play – a farce, manically switching roles to accommodate seven or eight characters of different ages and backgrounds. The tall youth, Blake (played by Aubrey Deeker with a feline dexterous grace), audaciously slips between the roles of the women in the play-within-the-play, quickly building several stereotype characters – a bored, smoking, lecherous housewife, a meek, dim homemaker, and an imposing toff – all while pulling impossibly funny faces and springing with a coiled energy that will eventually turn dark as the play goes on. He also plays a more innocent version of himself as a child, revealing his lost, loving, loyal, but mad self. The shorter youth, Sean (played by Alex Morf with a face like a young Ron Howard) bounces between a dim-witted older gent, a snooty rich fool, and as he flubs a line, himself. He carries much of the empathetic weight of the play – and his ability to love and grow is the play’s reach for redemption.
The older man, Dennis, is the boys’ father. Dinny, as he’s also known, is played with a truly psychopathic charisma by Ted van Griethuysen. His glowering, barely-suppressed rage imprisons the boys (and the audience) in his basilisk gaze. His only roles are himself – younger and older – distinguished only by the horrid blond curly toupee, and though he will only grant himself the “best actor” award of the day for the replaying of the farce, his character performs no acting. He just – is – evil.
The opening is played at a relentless pace, deliberately pulling the audience in with broad slapstick, hilarious hammy acting, and the occasional slip-up (as written) as they perform the play-within-a-play. That leaves us rocking with laughter as the outlines of the farce become clearer and clearer. Suddenly, we glean that they are acting in a stylized, fantasized version of some real event. But the play acts like camera lens, slowly bringing a total blur into focus over an agonizing two hours. We do not want to see the truth, but we must.
Over the course of the first of two acts, we cotton on. Blake and Sean are in their teens and have been rehearsing – no, performing – this farce for…how long? There is a funeral. Two funerals, the caskets in a house back in Ireland, for a dual wake. There are hints at money, greed, jealousy, sex – all elements of a farce, but this farce has a dark edge to it – as the stage, the apartment on Walworth Road is revealed to be a virtual prison for the boys. Odd details percolate below, tensions simmer and bubble to the surface, only to be stirred away by another manic change in costume, time, and setting within the farce.
At the end of the first act, an outsider enters – Haley (an instantly likeable and emotionally compelling Azania Dungee), a nice girl from the Tesco’s – and shatters the play-within-a-play’s fourth wall. Her role as the audience’s proxy on their sordid stage is both brave and incredibly fraught. Suffice it to say that I felt her peril in the pit of my stomach.
I can’t really go further into detail – I may have gone too far already – but this is extraordinary theater. Elements of “ripped from the headlines” crimes seep into the story, like the most terrifying (and best-written) episode of Law and Order, ever. Other elements of the story are so quintessentially Irish – specifically about the self-exile into England for work, the mythologizing of home, and the overwhelming weight of The Family on everyone.
The themes are made explicit – “you get stuck in a pattern” – a routine to keep everyone safe, safe from the truth. The comfort of routine and illusory safety of stories – how we mythologize our own lives in stories to cover the pain of real life – is brought here ab absurdum in the fate of these three lost men. The story never fails to shock as it twists and turns – elements of Krapps’ Last Tape, but with emotional kidnapping and horrible psychological child abuse – I genuinely had no idea Walsh had such a twisted mind. He seemed so nice!
The performances are so perfect, I can’t separate them from the characters, or the story. It’s hard to remember a time I was so convinced, so transported, so completely enmeshed in the hyper-reality that was playing before me that I couldn’t evaluate individual performances and remember that these are actors. The Walworth Farce is a stunning achievement. Walsh, the Studio Theatre, and the actors all triumph. Roll on Part III!
No Laughing Matter: a review of The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh, Milton Stage at the Studio Theatre, April 6-May 1.