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Theater review: 'The New Electric Ballroom' at Freud Playhouse at UCLA

December 3, 2009 |  2:30 pm

“There’s a terrible lull in the conversation,” says Clara, one of three sisters in “The New Electric Ballroom,” which concludes its must-see Freud Playhouse run on Sunday.

“The sort of lull that can get you worrying about other things,” she continues, squirming at the thought of silence.

For the record:
An earlier version of this post said the time of Saturday's performance of "The New Electric Ballroom" was 7 p.m. It is 8 p.m.

Talk drives Irish writer-director Enda Walsh’s strangely incisive comedy, but what hovers between the lines lingers there. The palpable absurdist aura typifies this touring presentation by the Druid Theatre of Galway, Ireland, and it closes UCLA Live’s Eighth International Theatre Festival in arrestingly quirky fashion. 

Electric Like hard-bitten Breda (Rosaleen Linehan), her sister, vaguely tender Clara (Ruth McCabe) is in her 60s, though both sport the garish eye shadow and rouge of their youth. Reliving a painfully pivotal night at the title dance palace fills their days. Sequestered at home — eerily designed by Sabine Dargent as a utilitarian metal cavern — away from the gossipy fishing village, Breda and Clara repeatedly return to the moment that their youth went awry.

“By their nature, people are talkers,” declares aging bad-girl Breda. “You can’t deny that.... You can, but you’d be affirming what you’re arguing against, and what would be the point of that? No point.”

 A tricky truth to rebut, that, and Clara hardly dares try. She instead peppers the colloquy with assertions of sponge-cake mastery and mystical non sequiturs: “She never ages, the Virgin Mary. But you might put that down to the Middle Eastern cuisine.”

This macabre pair has a dresser, prompter and captive audience in younger sister Ada (Catherine Walsh), only 40 but somehow far older. She cues their reminiscences, manages the reel-to-reel tape of atmosphere music, fetches their party dresses (also designed by Dargent). Ada has absorbed the family mythology.

As has Patsy (Mikel Murfi), the urgently jovial fishmonger whose visits with trays of fish offer a real-world counter to the sisters’ cracked shenanigans. Seizing upon Patsy’s transparent hunger for affection, Breda pulls him into their demented ritual. The resulting coup de théâtre leads to a riveting, meta-poetic climax, as Patsy delivers a torrential monologue that could set Ada free, or seal her isolated fate.

Walsh wrote “Ballroom” as companion piece to “The Walworth Farce,” which played this venue in November. The plays share a thematic structure of acted-out familial dysfunction, but where “Walworth” is savagely raffish, “Ballroom” is introspectively opaque, as though Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett had swapped notebooks. Droll yet creepy, imbued with a singular love of language, the script further cements Walsh’s reputation as a thrillingly original voice amid the new generation of Irish dramatists.

His direction is equally sharp, sustaining a tone of taut uncertainty, with Gregory Clarke’s sound and Sinéad McKenna’s lighting subtly instrumental in landing the denouement.

The actors could not be better. Linehan’s raucous Breda, circling and recoiling like an antic vulture, underpins spot-on comic timing with the gravitas of a born tragedienne, and McCabe laces her dithering with flashes of childlike pathos. Catherine Walsh mesmerizes as Ada, perpetually reaching out in gestures that both entreat and ward off her siblings, while Murfi’s selfless virtuosity as Patsy nearly steals the show.

Their ensemble finesse, tumbling into the soliloquies, suddenly halting with precisely attuned stillness, grabs us throughout. True, The Freud is perhaps a size too large for so intimately idiomatic a play, and audiences who need linear explanations may be stymied. Theatergoers seeking the unmistakable jolt of innate theatricality, however, must not miss this darkly memorable masquerade.

--David C. Nichols

"The New Electric Ballroom," Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tonight and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $28-$42. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. 

Above: Kathryn Walsh as Ada in "The New Electric Ballroom.: Credit: Photo by Keith Pattison