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Ted van Griethuysen and Aubrey Deeker in The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh. Directed by Matt Torney. Photo: Carol Pratt

“Only the running has any matter,” says Dinny (Ted van Griethuysen), the father in this disturbing black comedy, showing at The Studio Theater’s Milton Theater until May 1st.  This line embodies the essence of the play, in which brothers Sean (Alex Morf), and Blake (Aubrey Decker), everyday reenact the circumstances that forced them to resettle in a dank London apartment, so far from their beloved city of Cork, Ireland, so many years ago.  That the events that they are reenacting are of dubious veracity becomes clear, and affects the play with a mood that resonates like the nagging terror that one has forgotten something critical.  It is, at its core, a story about what happens when the ideas that we place faith in, and build lives out of and from are exposed for the lies that they are.

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Photo: Carol Pratt

Central to this narrative are the props and costumes that the family wears.  The father dons a ridiculous wig and constantly smears moisturizer all over his face to show he is young.

He repeatedly sniffs from a mysterious tin and makes the boys undergo a madcap series of costume changes in which the older son, Blake must appear as several different women in drag – often to very humorous effect.

Acts are triggered by musical cues played from an old tape deck, with a cassette of old, Irish folk music.

These effects in this play-within-a-play are essential, as it becomes clear that they represent the details that are intended by Dinny to  ground this narrative in reality, to almost force it to be real.

Each day, Sean is sent to the market to buy a whole chicken, a loaf of bread, creamy spreadable cheddar cheese, and a bottle of cream.  On this day, however, Sean picks up the wrong shopping bag, setting into motion events which unravel this careful, elaborate narrative, and expose the dark truth that it was constructed to hide.

Acclaimed playwright Enda Walsh wrote this tale, which is one part Cain and Abel, one part Stephen King’s Misery as part of his New Ireland series of plays, along with its “sibling” play The New Electric Ballroom (look for a review of that soon).  In The Walworth Farce, he aggressively paints the emotional landscape in which nearly every family lives; the play veers wildly between broad comedy, maudlin despair, and dark terror in perplexing fashion, like the wild mood swings of an alcoholic.  Linking such emotional and physical aggression to the inherently unpredictable nature of such frequent and extreme swings of temperament forces the audience to empathize with the two boys, and quickly draws them into that tight familial bond, wrought as much love from love as intense fear and shame, as much from joy as nauseating revulsion, and as much from anticipation as unrelenting terror.

This rollercoaster of emotion generally serves the play well; shocking violence underlies what immediately strikes the viewer as a whimsical (if insane) existence.  It is when the players plunge themselves into lengthy, expository tales of woe that the play loses its momentum, and one begins to feel the strain of decades that the characters have been acting out their crazy story-within-the-story.  Because of the nature of the plot, it is difficult to see how such lengthy exposition might be avoided; however, it is consistently tedious when the characters are forced to give lengthy, (though convincingly) tearful speeches, describing decades-old events, and the feelings they recall.  This play is heavily dependent on plotting, but it is focused on character.  The intense importance of the plot can, at times, distract from the character development – the players continuously compete with the story to grow their charcters, and ultimately lose.

It must be said that all of the actors are fantastic, especially Azania Dungee, making her Studio Theater debut as Hayley, the unwitting Tesco cashier whose as thanks for her earnest kindness is held captive, tied up as the characters’ roles veer from lovingly sympathetic to inevitable and resigned villainy; she might as well be a damsel in distress, lashed to train tracks as the drama careens towards its necessarily bloody conclusion.  Just as in those old westerns, that there is more than one track the train can take is readily apparent; the question is: can the brakeman hit the switch on time?

Director Matt Torney and Set Designer Debra Booth are both excellent as the set is a fantastic diorama of dilapidation and the players move forcefully about it, using every inch to both confuse and disturb.  Often, two or three competing pieces of action will be going on at the same time; the play starts with one character ironing a dress, another drunkenly doing old man calisthenics, and the third realizing with horror that he has brought the wrong bag back from Tesco.  This is facilitated by the set design; there are three rooms – a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen, whose walls have been knocked down – immediately calling to mind how the narrative fantasy that this family acts out every day has subsumed the identities of these three people.  The husk of dividing walls between the rooms illustrates how these identities only serve a vestigial function – only the performance of the play is important.  There are also two small closets which the two sons use to frantically change their wardrobe over the course of the play.  These fleeting moments are the only privacy these two men are afforded – and these rooms only exist so the sons may quickly switch back and forth between the identities their father has created for them.

The Walworth Farce effectively illustrates the underlying madness in all families, the lies and made-up histories that ingrain themselves in our own domestic fabric.  It lampoons the rituals that we all take for granted, the birthday parties, the religious services, the general family functions that serve to keep us all on an acceptable narrative.  It is then deeply troubling that the consequences of rending these false constructs are so disturbing and permanent; certainly the routine this family had established was profoundly wrong, and concealed a horrible truth.  How are we to condemn this routine, if the breaking of it had such terrible results?

It is often so in the regular, mundane families of the real world, and the more ingrained the ritual, the worse the consequences for breaking it.  From Muslim honor killings to the ostracism and bullying of gay children to the casual castigation of the “other” (which has reached its cultural nadir in the seemingly indomitable “birther” movement), the consequences of defying the established order are often severe.  In The Walworth Farce, the three compete each day to win the acting trophy – which always goes to the best actor, and always goes to the father, Dinny.  Our rituals often have illusory rewards that are always kept out of reach, and we in the following are like Sisyphus condemned to pushing a bolder up a hill for eternity, only to have it fall down as he’s reaching the top, there is no end-game to our rituals.  Often the only reward is the promise to share in the afterlife with a mythological heavenly father figure.  To see this concept visualized on such a small stage, between three grown men acting out a children’s story is arresting.  That the story, like many of our rituals, has unclear ends, highlights this injustice, for indeed, as Dinny says “Only the running has any matter.”  For, a ritual is only worthwhile in that it enforces adherence to an idea.  What then, when the idea is a lie?

The Walworth Farce

By Enda Walsh; directed by Matt Torney; sets by Debra Booth; costumes by Helen Q. Huang; lighting by Michael Ginnitti; sound design by Martin Desjardin, fight choreography by Robb Hunter. A Studio Theater production. At The Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington DC 20005. Through May 1. Running time: 2.5 hours.

WITH: Ted van Griethuysen (Dinny), Aubrey Deeker (Blake), Alex Morf (Sean) and Azania Dungee (Hayley).