Theater review: 'The Walworth Farce' at Freud Playhouse
Family lore isn’t just innocently passed down. It’s carefully scripted, regularly rehearsed and slyly refurbished when needed. Ever notice how the stories with the slipperiest facts tend to get revived most often as if in fear that their protective deceits might finally peel away for good?
Enda Walsh, one of the hottest names in contemporary Irish playwriting, doesn’t simply find in these observations the theme for his bizarre, brazenly original and utterly poleaxing tragicomedy “The Walworth Farce,” which is being presented at the Freud Playhouse through Sunday as part of UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival. The engine of his drama is powered by a father’s insistence that his two sons ritually enact with him a vaudevillian version of their shared history — complete with props, wigs and costumes for both sexes.
This manic carnival, stupendously brought to life by the celebrated Galway-based theater company Druid Ireland under the direction of Mikel Murfi, is set in a condemnable London apartment, designed by Sabine Dargent with just the right touches of cooped-up squalor. Here, Dinny (Michael Glenn Murphy), a Cork man who fled to England under strange circumstances without his wife, has more or less immured his two sons, Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Raymond Scannell) to live in the fun house of his distorted memories. Crowded together, the sons try to make room for their own poignant recollections “of the smell of Mammy’s cooking” and the chicken that was still stuck in the wool of their jumpers when they first came over as tots.
Walsh has commented on there being a resonance between his play and the real-life story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years. “The Walworth Farce” certainly captures the stunted development of men in their 20s who have been taught to fear the outside world as a menacing evil. But don’t get the idea that this is an abduction drama awaiting its Oprah Winfrey moment.
The playwright has constructed out of this peculiar cross between an emigrant’s lament and a sociopath’s compulsive ritual a meta-theatrical machine that mows down anything that gets in its way, including all the old "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" cliches, a recording of which nostalgically trills at Dinny’s perverse command. “This story we play is everything,” says Blake, a lanky lad who gamely assumes a number of female roles, whose identities, like the rest of the characters in Dinny’s hyperactive remembrance of things past, bolt by in a deranged blur.
The saga is meant to be hermetically sealed, as the primary audience for the play within the play consists of the characters who are performing it. Clearly, there’s a therapeutic benefit in staging this crackpot closet drama for Dinny, who reminds his sons that the retelling of stories “brings us some calm and peace of mind” -- although you’d never know it by the way he frenetically stage manages every detail of their act, as though his very sanity were at stake.
When a visitor eventually comes to the door in the form of a black British supermarket clerk named Hayley (a touchingly real Mercy Ojelade) -- who arrives bearing the bag of groceries that Sean, in his one daily outing to retrieve the necessary household (and theatrical) supplies, mixed up with someone else’s, -- you can feel the audience’s elation that an outside light is finally going to break through to this sealed-off world. This young woman, who has taken an interest in Sean, possesses a simple-minded innocence that will entice her to play along with the family game for a time, but the pathological nature of this sport doesn’t allow for dabblers.
Walsh is part of an enviable generation of highly distinctive Irish dramatists, which includes Conor McPherson, Marina Carr and the British-born Martin McDonagh, all of whom have had to wrestle with the ghost of Beckett in their quests to find their own idiosyncratic voices. “The Walworth Farce,” one of two Walsh plays being presented by UCLA Live this season (“The New Electric Ballroom” arrives at the Freud on Dec. 2), bears traces of Beckett’s “Endgame” but there’s also, for all the play’s violence (slapstick and otherwise), a psychological sensitivity and jolting compassion that invokes Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, more recent Irish predecessors.
Having read the play but never having seen it, I can’t imagine a better production than this exquisitely acted one from Druid Ireland. The cast proceeds with such ferocious conviction and discipline, entering into what amounts to a hall of mirrors and lending every reflection a human dignity, no matter how mad it may seem.
Murfi’s adroit staging, featuring the poetic lighting of Paul Keogan and Dargent’s entrancingly dilapidated set and tatty costumes, establishes the unique cosmos Wash has coined. This is not your tear-stained, Guinness-soaked melodrama from yesteryear but a thrilling ride into the ruthlessly unsentimental imagination of modern Ireland.
-- Charles McNulty
“The Walworth Farce,” Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive E., UCLA campus, Westwood. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $28-$42. (310) 825-2101, www.uclalive.org. Running time: 2 hours
Photo: Top: Michael Glenn Murphy, Tadhg Murphy and Raymond Scannell. Bottom: Tadhg Murphy, Michael Glenn Murphy, and Scannell Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times