Our stories define us: tales from childhood retold at family reunions, nights of reverie recalled at high school reunions, the stories of courtship and marriage that parents tell their children. But at what point do these stories enslave us – trap us in roles from years past, encapsulating what is complicated and mutable into something pat and repeatable?
These is one of the meta-questions that lie behind “The Walworth Farce,” a production at the Studio Theatre in DC that my lovely wife and I took in a while back. But it won’t occur to you until at least midway through this disturbing slice of Irish darkness that is also fast-paced and intermittently funny. You’re likely to spend much of the first act just wondering what the heck is going on.
An old man sits in a beat-up armchair in the middle of a crumbling apartment, one younger man is in the next room ironing a dress, another nervously unpacks groceries in the kitchen. The old man, Dinny (Ted van Griethuysen), starts a tape recorder with peppy music from decades ago and the two younger men, who you soon find out are Dinny’s sons, fly into a bizarre series of interactions. Only a good way into the first act does it become clear that the boys, Sean (Alex Morf) and Blake (Aubrey Deeker), are acting out scenes from the last day Dinny spent in Ireland.
The play-within-a-play is a baroque farce involving two scams, two funerals, and a lot of quick costume changes (Blake plays all of the female parts). The boys’ agitation is palpable, and we discover why when Sean suffers the consequences of messing up some of the key props. He has had a conversation with a clerk, Hayley (Azania Dungee), at the grocery store and this contact with anyone outside the isolated apartment has totally unnerved him. When Hayley ultimately insinuates herself into this weird world, the results are disastrous.
Within its limited, strange little structure, “Walworth” is quite brilliant and presents prime opportunities for every actor involved to chew a healthy amount of scenery. As Sean, Morf has to surf between the three levels of reality in the play: Dinny’s fantastical story, the real-life relationship between a father and his sons, and the bigworld outside beyond their apartment door. Van Griethuysen’ Dinny is imperious and unhinged but also charming in places. Deeker makes Blake physically imposing but emotionally fragile, and the drama eventually turns on a decision his fevered mind must sort out. Dungee is unfortunately forced to sit and watch a lot of the action but she projects a breezy and appealing personality in her first scenes with Morf.
As the tension escalates, “Walworth” gets trapped in some frustrating scene constructions that you might expect in a bad horror movie. By late in the second act, you might find yourself asking, “Why doesn’t Hayley just use the knife prominently at hand in the kitchen?” Or “Why does Hayley’s cell phone ring for SO long?” For a show that teeters on the edge of plausibility as it is, these moments threaten to push it over the edge.
But even with its structural faults and overall weirdness, “Walworth” is fascinating in its exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and how they can ultimately determine our fate. A one-set show with only four actors, it’d be a prime candidate for production by the Firehouse or one of the fringier companies in town. The playwright is the recently celebrated Enda Walsh, a challenger to Martin McDonagh’s realm of idiosyncratic but amazing plays and a name I’ll be watching for in years to come.