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In The New Electric Ballroom, a three-person family’s ritualistic re-enactment of unhappy events in the distant past is interrupted by a visitor who comes a-courtin’ for their youngest.
That slugline also describes this confounding play’s companion piece in Studio Theatre’s Enda Walsh festival, The Walworth Farce, which opened last week. Originally premiered a year apart, in 2005 and 2006, Ballroom and Walworth are like photonegatives of one another: The former concerns a family of two old ladies and a younger one; the latter, two young men and an old man. In Walworth, a chirpy supermarket clerk barges in on the psychodrama hoping to chat up the painfully shy Sean; in Ballroom, a much-abused fishmonger presents himself as a suitor to Ada, a never-been-kissed 40-year-old.
Finally, in Walworth, Walsh and Matt Torney, who directed both shows, sustain an atmosphere of menace by keeping us in fear of what Dinny, the play’s volatile paterfamilias, or his increasingly rebellious offspring, might at any moment do. In Ballroom, Walsh takes away that hypnotic threat of sudden violence and replaces it with—well, there’s the rub. Where its two-act brother has a compelling parallel narrative that anchored its funhouse-mirror flashbacks to the present, the one-act Ballroom is opaque and dull, somehow managing to feel both compressed to the point of suffication but also insubstantial. Like its festival fellows, this is a handsomely mounted production boasting ace performances from a cast of ringers. But in terms of the quality of the material, it’s easily the runt of Studio’s Walsh three-pack.
That’s a big bummer, because I was looking forward to seeing what this playwright would do for the ladies. Penelope, the Walsh Festival opener, was hilarious: It featured a gang of grotesque caricatures of inflated masculinity trying to woo the title character, who appears but never speaks, while her husband Odysseus is off inventing narrative fiction. And Walworth’s only underfed role is that of the checkout girl from Tesco. It’s basically the standard scream-and-cower part that’s provided nubile actresses with work in slasher flicks forever. At least actress Azania Dungee gets to keep her top on.
In Ballroom, Walsh finally takes an interest in the inner lives of women. Unfortunately, his women are inexplicably feeble. As the dowager sisters Breda and Clara, Sybil Lines and Nancy Robinette give their gritty all. To watch them transform themselves briefly into 18-year-old girls is to marvel at their consummate craft. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t tell you what either of these characters want. The original sin that grounds the ever-extending passion play in Walworth is a murder, a trauma we’ve no trouble believing could haunt all involved for the rest of their mortal days. Again, Ballroom takes the opposite route. Without venturing any further into spoiler territory, I’ll say that that here the primordial transgression is an event so ordinary that it seems a strain on logic—even spooky Irish dream logic—that both sisters would react to it by simultaneously going smeared-lipstick crazy for 40 years. Even allowing for the limited options available to young girls “stamped by story,” as Breda puts it, in the rural Ireland of the 1960s, you’d have to accept that Breda and Clara are both utterly helpless girls who remain utterly helpless as women for any of this to wash.
The explanation, of course, is that Walsh is more interested in language than he is in character or plot, and fair enough. This play’s elements rate from strongest to weakest in exactly that order. As others have noted, Walsh’s debt to his countryman Samuel Beckett is even more apparent here than elsewhere in his ouevre. There’s a prize-winning coffee cake Clara has made, and she wonders at intervals if the ladies shall ever eat. Here’s a hint: Dessert will be served as soon as Godot shows up.
So I think I get what Walsh is doing. But why does the sole man here—that’d be fishmonger Patsy, who’s no less lonely for his ability to see his insignificance in philosophical terms—have to be the only character who gets to do anything to try to better his lot? Liam Craig is excellent in the role, bringing a warmth and comic spark that’s otherwise in woefully short supply. His bewilderment-into-fear-into-delight when Breda at last invites him in for rather more than a cup of tea is something to remember. It’s giddy and it’s hopeful—and this being Ireland, it can’t possibly last.