Another Day, Another Play, for Rotten Old Dad
The craziest thing about Enda Walsh’s “Walworth Farce,” the galloping gothic comedy out of Ireland that opened on Friday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, is how quickly it starts making sense. For the first few minutes of this ripping, warping family portrait, a production of the Druid Theater Company of Galway, you’re apt to feel that you’ve walked in on a Hibernian Three Stooges routine, directed by a drunken Dadaist.
Why is the young man in saggy underpants ironing a dress and then smelling it? Why is that other fellow — the one with the shaved pate — looking in horror at a sausage? And what about the older, stockier guy who keeps striking poses that bring to mind a steroid-inflated Fred Astaire?
Answers are not immediately forthcoming. Without prologue or preamble, this unseemly threesome begins performing a play, not for us but for one another. It involves assorted wigs; foodstuffs; two cardboard coffins; Monopoly money; a bright yellow tin of poison; and, for the younger men, instant and frequent changes of identity.
Yet before a single rational explanation is offered, all of this has started to seem, if not normal, exactly, then disturbingly familiar. Without knowing it, you have crossed into the twilight zone of one family’s personal mythology: the anecdotes, the rituals, the lies, the wounding jokes that keep blood kin shackled together in irons that are stronger than truth.
Now your old dad and siblings may not put on wigs and costumes when it comes time to relive shared memories at reunions. But as directed with unfaltering brazenness by Mikel Murfi in a style that walks the line between madcap and stark, raving mad, the four wonderful performers here make “The Walworth Farce” feel like a homecoming for all those who have felt trapped by the way their families rewrite history.
“The Walworth Farce,” staged to huzzahs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year and scheduled for the National Theater in London in September, is unmistakably an Irish play. Its cheerful integration of homicidal horror into daily domestic routine brings to mind the bloody hearths in Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy. Its depiction of storytelling as a necessary defensive art is at the heart of works like Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” and Conor McPherson’s “Weir.” As for its mock-heroic exaggerations, well, they’re as old as Ireland itself.
Mr. Walsh, the author of the brilliant “Bedbound” (2002) and a writer who deserves to be better known in this country, brings his own clarifying distortions to the thriving tradition of outsize Irish narrative. As artistically self-conscious as his literary peers, he uses forms of theater and oral history to satirize the Irish exaltation of them. (The play within the play here sometimes reads as a parody of the McDonagh school of dramaturgy.)
But you don’t have to be an Irish lit major to revel in Mr. Walsh’s depiction of the folie à trois lived out on a daily basis by Dinny (Denis Conway), the one-play playwright, and his grown-up sons, Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Garrett Lombard). These three men share a rotting penthouse flat in London (a festering eyesore of a set by Sabine Dargent) that looks as if its inhabitants regularly take a hammer to its walls. This turns out to be not far from the truth.
One of the production’s pleasures is discovering the totemic significance of mundane objects in the flat: the biscuit tin that Dinny opens to inhale the contents of every now and then; the big jar of grease that he dips into before massaging his head with the intensity of Lady Macbeth rubbing her hands; the old tape deck that plays an Irish lullaby; and the shiny trophy on a shelf, presented at the end of each performance to the best actor. (The odds heavily favor Dinny, needless to say.)
Those performances enact the tale of why Dinny and his sons have been living in exile, in agoraphobic reclusion, from their native Cork for many years. Dinny portrays only himself, while Blake acts out all the female roles (including that of his own absent mother), and Sean does the other men, like Dinny’s pea-brained brother. Both sons play themselves as boys, as Dad chooses to remember them.
It’s not easy for skilled actors to play amateurs. The temptation is to wink at the audience. But this little family is well beyond amateurism. They’re doing their own special passion play, and they’ve evidently done it again and again without ever getting it quite right.
Mr. Conway, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Lombard invest their characters with onion-skin layers of anger, apprehension and confusion. So their blunt awkwardness as actors, while hilarious, has a knife’s edge too. When the show slides into Grand Guignol territory, at the end of the first act, it feels inevitable even as it surprises.
This segue in tone is prompted by the arrival of an unwitting stranger, a checkout girl from the local Tesco named Hayley (Mercy Ojelade, who exudes a devastating naturalness and innocence). It’s an old device in drama, using an outsider to make us see with joltingly clear eyes characters we’ve been seduced by, but it’s used to inspired effect here.
Suddenly men we’ve been regarding as Larry, Curly and Moe are looking more like the flesh-eating yokels from the slasher flick “The Hills Have Eyes.” Horror movies, by the way, help shape the paralyzing, self-justifying view of the world that Dinny feeds his children. And Mr. Walsh is not above the crude simple-mindedness of that genre.
But I’ve probably said too much already. It’s better that you not know a lot in advance about what Dinny describes, with unusual understatement, as “a day of twists and turns and ducks and dives and terrible shocks.” I don’t want to step on a master storyteller’s punch lines. For, as Dinny asks, “What are we without our stories?”
THE WALWORTH FARCE
By Enda Walsh; directed by Mikel Murfi; sets and costumes by Sabine Dargent; lighting by Paul Keogen. A Druid Theater Company of Galway production, presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse in association with Piece by Piece Productions and Jean Stein. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, at Dock Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn; (718) 254-8779. Through May 4. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Denis Conway (Dinny), Garrett Lombard (Blake), Tadhg Murphy (Sean) and Mercy Ojelade (Hayley).