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Where Art feels discursive and casual, The Walworth Farce is urgent and entrancing even when you can’t exactly locate yourself in the narrative woods, which may be the mildly panicky state in which you spend much of the first act. This second entry in Studio Theatre’s three-part Enda Walsh festival is, like next week’s The New Electric Ballroom, a new production directed by Matt Torney. (The festival opener, a visiting production of Penelope by Ireland’s Druid Theatre, was as compelling as Walworth but even more abstruse.)
As is typical with Walsh—one of a handful of still-youngish dramatists responsible for a raft of bracing theater that’s come out of Ireland since the mid-’90s—the opening moments here are aggressively bemusing: The burly Dinny (Ted van Griethuysen in a bad suit and worse wig) goes down for some deep knee-bends while slim Blake (Aubrey Deeker) irons and slips into a dress. Sean (Alex Morf, whose performance is perhaps the most affecting in a show full of astonishing ones) appears more disquieted by the sausage in his grocery bag than mere vegetarianism can excuse. His shaved-down-the-dome hairdo, a cruel parody of male middle age, is unsettling enough to make us fear him.
What emerges through the haze is that Dinny forces his two sons to perform a highly theatrical, ritualized re-enactment of some gruesome bad craziness that compelled him to flee Cork for South London some years ago. The particulars of Dinny’s crimes remain opaque to me, but seem to involve a roast chicken with a gelatinous green sauce that may recall the school-lunch periods you—OK, I—spent combining the various unappetizing components into a truly repellent compound that you/I then dared friends to sample.
Anyway! They’ve been staging this twisted passion play every day for years. Their father gives notes as they go. Any actor who’s ever suffered under an imperious director may find van Griethuysen’s turn particularly seizure-inducing.
Sean makes the daily run to Tesco for the food the show requires, but today several key items are missing. When an impossibly kind clerk from the store (Azania Dungee) tails him home and climbs the 15 flights up to his council flats prison tower to return a bag Sean left, her intrusion is a relief. The performances-within-performances in Act 1, wherein Sean and Blake skip from role to role (and wig to wig) embodying various among their relatives, are exhausting. We’re grateful for an interloper whose arrival forces all the players, at least temporarily, into the present.
Of course, crazy people are crazy adaptable—they can channel new information into the architecture of their mania even faster than they can change wigs. (Sorry. There are more, and more egregious, wigs in this thing than there are in Dreamgirls.) Dinny instantly finds a role for the girl from Tesco, and suddenly Sean’s got more on his mind than Dad’s incessant script changes.
If Dungee’s performance as the girl-in-jeopardy seems kind of one-note, it’s only because Walsh gives the three men present so much more to do. Morf and Deeker are each brilliant at balancing the competing motivations of their roles, and van Griethuysen will haunt anyone who’s ever feared their father’s rage. When the climactic explosion comes, it feels merely inevitable. But it’s the moments after where The Walworth Farce shows us how being typecast can ruin an artist’s life.