As Tolstoy famously reminds us, all unhappy families are miserable in their own special ways. Enda Walsh plunges into extreme family dysfunction, Irish-style, in his cleverly constructed theatrical nightmare, “The Walworth Farce.”
Walsh is a Londoner who hails from Dublin, and a very hot playwright in both locales. He’s also a screenwriter.
And this dramatist knows his forbears. In “Walworth Farce,” the menace of Pinter and absurdity of Beckett collide with Freudian symbolism and the psychosexual zaniness of Orton. No wonder the dexterous New Century Theatre Company actors were attracted to the script, which they’re performing at New City Theatre.
Maybe I’ve seen too many bleak, male-centric tragi-farces to viscerally connect with this one. But the sheer craft of the enterprise is very impressive.
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In a rundown flat on South London’s Walworth Road, bullying patriarch and would-be amateur actor Dinny (Peter Crook) stages a compulsive daily ritual. With his cowed adult sons Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor) and Sean (Darragh Kennan), he re-enacts how and why the three moved from Ireland to England.
It’s a saga of relations battling over an inheritance from Dinny’s late mother, in a madcap rip with shared wigs, cross-dressing, morbid gags, coy sexual accents, cheery songs, maudlin grief and misty images of the Old Country.
Walsh handily fragments and subverts these Irish-immigration clichés, however. And in the moments the masks slip away, the ugly truth gradually comes into focus.
Dread and fear seep into the play’s atmosphere, like a slow, deadly gas leak. And Walsh exploits a primal plot device: the intrusion of an innocent from the “real world” — here a cheery grocery clerk, Hayley (Allison Strickland), whose presence destabilizes the alternative reality Dinny and sons are trapped in.
John Kazanjian’s shrewdly paced direction gives “The Walworth Farce” a steadily mounting tension — which leads, no surprise, to a finale of explosive betrayal and bloodletting.
Dashing around and recoiling on Nina Moser’s perfectly creepy set, O’Connor doggedly camps through several women’s roles in the play-within-a-play, and deflates into dazed despair during furtive “offstage” brotherly exchanges.
In Kennan’s strong turn, Sean’s bone-deep terror as the chief victim of his father’s rage contrasts starkly with his clowning in the family charade. Most pathetic is his hopeless attraction to the relatively normal Hayley — played by Strickland with a sweet, gawky boldness that vanishes into raw fear.
And Crook’s wildly narcissistic Dinny? Swinging between hammy bravado and reptilian malevolence, he embodies the most interesting aspect of Walsh’s grim family portrait: the psychological (and theatrical) impulse to escape from guilt-ridden reality into self-serving fantasy.
We allow Mr. Doubt into this flat, and where would we be? asks Dinny. Exactly.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org