Red and yellow and pink and green can make a rainbow… or, when smooshed together, can make a brown muddy mess. The many shades of The Walworth Farce are more brownish than glorious — there’s a little bit of Ionesco, a little Beckett, a little McDonagh, a touch of Friel. The play by Irish writer Enda Walsh comes much ballyhooed; it was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe 2007, and the writer has a bit of a "next new thing" reputation — a writer with his own voice whose flights of fancy seem to have no relation to the metaphysical riffs of Conor McPherson or the comic violence of Martin McDonagh. Instead, he works in absurdist veins with a lunatic poetry. Garry Hynes, cofounder of Ireland’s Druid Theatre, who brought us DruidSynge last year (the Synge marathon at Lincoln Center), and who is the first female director ever to win a Tony for her work (yup, Enda’s a guy, and Garry’s a girl), bring us this production running at St. Ann’s through May 4th, directed by Mikel Murfi.
But what it feels like may instead be an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch with overtones of significance. It takes a while to get your bearings on what’s happening. The play opens on a stage split into three rooms, in which each character silently prepares for something, we don’t know what: a middle-aged man runs in place, a young man irons a skirt, another, in the kitchen, is doing something at a stove. The apartment is a hole, as run down as they come (set design by Sabine Dargent). Soon the three men launch into what is clearly some kind of performance or rehearsal, involving frantic wig-changing, prompting for cues, cheap cardboard props (involving coffins) and rushing about from room to room. The story they are reliving is a preposterous one involving murder after a funeral, and gradually we realize that it’s a fictionalized version of how the father, Dinny (Denis Conway) came to leave Cork and end up in this awful place. The other two "actors" are his sons, Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Garret Lombard). Blake plays the female roles, holding a wig up to indicate where one should be when two are needed. They do this every day, competing for a trophy that the father always awards to himself.
This is the "farce." It’s played at breakneck speed, with such incongruous, hilarious touches as a man learning to be a brain surgeon when he patches up a skull with duct tape — the more it plays the odder it gets. Murfi’s direction here really shines; in the hands of anyone less skilled the farce wouldn’t work at all. But entertaining though the farce-within-a-play may be, we don’t really care what happens to the tellers or the tale. So Walsh ups the tension: we realize that Sean, the more sensitive one, who is bald on the front (no doubt to make his various wig and cap changes easier) dreams of leaving the apartment — in which he and his brother have been virtual prisoners since the age of five. We see that Dinny terrorizes the boys into the endless playing of the story in order to forestall their departure. And not long after we realize that Sean has had an actual conversation with someone on the outside, a checkout girl at Tesco’s, the very same checkout girl, Hayley (Mercy Ojelade) arrives.
The second act is all about whether or not Hayley will get out alive and if Sean will go with her. It’s a pretty conventional arc — see 1984 or Logan’s Run. Hayley’s entrance makes Act II much livelier, although it’s less frenetic, because there’s a question hanging in the air. But in "grounding" the story in the real world, Walsh creates other problems — he seems to want us to really believe the three men have been up in the flat for 15 years and nobody’s noticed, but this, of course, is not possible. We’re neither in a purely absurdist world nor in a plausible one. Where we are, in fact, is in the dodgy land of symbols.
Walsh wants his play to make us think about the dangers in storytelling, the cyclical nature of violence, and he’s got something to say about Ireland and emigration too. "London’s not like he tells it," Sean says to Blake, about how the world outside isn’t really full of cannibals. That Hayley is English and black is no accident — she represents the multicultural world they could enter if they left their devotion to their story behind. Walsh has the characters play "A Nation Once Again" on the tape recorder before they go into the tale. But the play is not a picture of contemporary Ireland, which has been prosperous, terror-free and decidedly multicultural (see Once, the 2008 Academy-Award winner, set in Ireland and involving an immigrant Czech) for a good ten years now — and if it’s just a picture of a family of maniacs, why should we care? Nineteenth-century French dramatists wrote Symbolism in verse; Walsh uses jokes, some evocative setpieces and slapstick, but he bumps into the same roadblocks: the characters neither quite convince as individuals nor or broad enough to convince as symbols. By the time Dinny admits "The telling of the story… it helps me, Shawn" we’re far ahead of him. Long before we get to the end, we know it can only end one way. The excellent cast gets a thorough aerobic workout and do bring passion and conviction to the roles. Much of the imagination in the play-within-a-play has a zany quality. Ultimately, whether you’ll enjoy the play will depend on whether you chuckle at set-piece routines involving an exploding dog.