Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Electric Ballroom


Written and directed by Enda Walsh. Druid Ireland at St. Ann's Warehouse. (CLOSED)

Few critics fail to reference Beckett in discussing Enda Walsh's dark new comedy, about spinster sisters ritually reenacting a romantic betrayal on a tacky diner set. While all agree that the play is bleak and chilling, and most admire Walsh's oddly funny, lyrical voice as well as the committed performances of his ensemble, a few dissenters find it a tedious verbal exercise.

Village Voice A
(Alexis Soloski) Though Walsh writes with gorgeous, playful language, his works continually insist on the ways that speech can fetter and calcify the soul. Here, people are "scarred," "boxed," "marked," "branded," and "stamped" by words. Toward the play's end, the sisters attempt to break away, to attempt a rewrite, but narrative takes its revenge. Walsh does not rely on any macabre effects: no blood, no murder, only an occasional scream. Yet his vision of the world—and of the theater, that place where stories repeat and repeat—proves more terrifying than any horror film. Ask Ada, who bitterly whispers, "Doesn't story always find a way to catch us out?"

Theatermania A
(David Finkle) Exhilarating...Composing in the urgently poetic tradition of Irish spellbinders as far back as William Butler Yeats, who co-founded the Abbey Theatre, Walsh has come up with a four-character work that has the power of something Samuel Becket [sic] might have produced had he chosen to write a 75-minute playlet about two women routinely and ritually expecting something to happen that looks as if it never will...Walsh, from whom words drop as copiously as rain in a downpour, is partial to lengthy monologues that blend hilarity with pathos. It's as if all three sisters and their clumsy gentleman caller don't so much talk to each other as take turns talking at each other in colorful, impassioned outbursts...Directing his elegy, Walsh sees to it that he gets out of his talky yet fluid manuscript what he put into it. No question that he's got the cast to help him...The first-rate acting quartet guarantees the chilling success of this ultimately gloomy if riveting play.

Variety A
(Sam Thielman) Enda Walsh's carefully wrought tragicomedy "New Electric Ballroom" again explores art's capacity to seriously screw people up. Walsh directs the play like Beckett on speed, ramming its hapless characters through interlocking recollections of bitter rejection that seem like they'll go on forever...Somehow when Walsh's play isn't unbearably tense, it's hilarious. Though the atmosphere stays charged the entire time, Breda's vicious one-liners and Clara's gentle blabbering force us to laugh, which lets out some of the tension and enables us to keep watching...While some of the appeal is surely in the writing, Mikel Murfi (who directed "Walworth") shines as Patsy, most appropriate of all the appropriate names here...Sabine Dargent's design work is eye-catching and cool, without at all violating the play's stark spirit.

The New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) Mordantly funny, weirdly transfixing...The heart-scarred Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Ruth McCabe), withdrawn from the world and its cruel gossip, spout language as if it were blood pouring from an arterial wound...Mr. Walsh, like many a great Irish playwright before him, has a breathtaking lyrical gift capable of encompassing daft humor and spine-chilling truths in language that still remains powerfully real...The set (by Sabine Dargent) for this version is flimsier and less atmospheric than when I saw it in Edinburgh, and the right atmosphere is a crucial element in a play that mixes naturalism and fantasy...But the play still casts a powerful, macabre spell. The acting is superlative: lyric, grimly real but a little demented too.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) In the strange, singular world of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, the mundanity of domestic life is merely the springboard for the sort of bizarre, stylized ritual that would have made Samuel Beckett envious...The playwright Walsh's brand of poetic stylization is dense and sometimes incomprehensible, but he undeniably succeeds in conjuring a distinctive theatrical universe. And unlike "Walworth," which devolved into Grand Guignol-style melodrama, this effort succeeds in making us care about the lives of its emotionally beaten down characters. Under the Walsh's direction, the Irish cast performs brilliantly, managing the difficult feat of conveying their characters' pathos as well as their ridiculousness.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Story time typically brings cozy comfort. But there's no such luck from the yarn spun in "The New Electric Ballroom" by Enda Walsh, who directs his compact and compelling dark fable...As in "The Walworth Farce," a companion play, Walsh cannily uses damaged characters to explore both the power and impotence of words. Mikel Murfi completes the cast as a doughy, downcast fishmonger who might be Ada's ticket out. Or maybe not. Like stories, history often can repeat itself.

The New Yorker B-
If Beckett had written “Bye Bye Birdie,” it might look something like Enda Walsh’s play, directed by Walsh for Druid Theatre, about three sisters in an Irish fishing town...The story is told through eerie, word-drunk monologues, punctuated by bizarre bits of action (at one point, the fishmonger gets a full-body scrub-down). As committed as the play is to its own eccentricities, it’s too emotionally self-contained, leaving the audience as befuddled as the poor fishmonger.

Time Out NY C+
(David Cote) Aridly artificial and smugly hermetic...There is, admittedly, rigor and craft in this visiting production by Druid Ireland...But unlike his countrymen Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, Walsh eschews accessible narrative and dialogue, writing in a pseudo-Beckettian vein of babbling stage constructs that are hard to accept as fleshed characters. Lyricism flows through their windy perorations, and they seem to suffer bitterly from past trauma, but Walsh’s dramaturgical strategy (evidenced in last year’s The Walworth Farce) is to use ritual activity, chunks of self-conscious blather and contrived, obsessive reenactments...Staged by the author as if we were in a pink-accented psych ward, this 80-minute exercise is attractive to look at and fervently acted, but it needs a stronger current to set any gears in motion.

Backstage C
(Adam R. Perlman) Between the desolation, the waiting, the game playing, and the hoping for hope, Walsh has steeped the play so deeply in the Beckettian mise en scène that it arrives on these shores riding a wave of critical notices that suggests Walsh is the second coming of the Irish master. I feel obliged to point out, though, that the emperor has no clothes—or at least a shamefully moth-bitten set. What's lacking are those Beckett hallmarks: pathos, purpose, precision, and wit...Plot isn't the point, so let's not judge Walsh too harshly for his lack of it. The monologues, however, are another story. It's a strange talent to write material so grotesque yet so boring. Thankfully, Walsh the director is a good sight better than Walsh the writer, so there are at least a few engaging stage pictures.

Village Voice A 13; Theatermania A 13; Variety A 13; The New York Times B+ 11; New York Post B+ 11; The Daily News B+ 11; NYer B- 9; Time Out NY C+ 8; Backstage C 7; TOTAL: 96/9=10.67 (B+)

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