Absurdism can still carry a defining kick, as the Young Vic’s blistering revival of “Six Characters Looking for an Author” most recently proved. But Colin Teevan’s new play, “The Walls,” at the National for a short run ending April 11, backs the genre up against a wall. Some may be intrigued by Teevan’s attempts to marry Irish domestic drama with an anything-can-happen landscape by way of Pirandello via Edward Lear. (Consider, for starters, a remark about “a coincidence of coincidences coinciding coincidentally.”) But most spectators are likely to be exasperated by the play’s freewheeling co-option of other, better writers to such slight avail.
Thank heavens, at least, for a star, Clare Higgins, blessed with a wonderfully acerbic laugh. Under the circumstances, perhaps this terrific actress could be encouraged to bottle her distinctive chortle and hand it out to theatergoers on their way in. Let’s just say that it would come in handy.
So, too, does considerable patience, since “The Walls” is a short play (barely two hours) that feels twice its length. At first, you may wonder about Dick Bird’s suburban Dublin set, which is so barely (and boringly) furnished that some statement — or so one hopes — is being made.
What’s more, the first person to speak is billed solely as The Man (Toby Jones), who has come from the developers to sort out “the problem.” Hopes rise that we may be in for a petit-bourgeois Celtic equivalent of, say, Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” another play in which guests bring with them an awareness of some nameless dread.
No such luck. While The Man goes off to check the drains, Higgins’ Stella, the family matriarch, deals with a dysfunctional clan (herself most fretfully included) that tend toward the portentously named. Monosyllabic son John (Gary Lydon) is a 40-year-old layabout who is working on a book about a “sense of loss,” while his expatriated brother Joseph (Declan Conlon) arrives with English wife Mary (Monica Dolan) — the subtlety of those names: sweet Jesus! — in tow. Theo (Michael Culkin), the men’s father, and the disabled Tom (Karl Johnson), a neighboring priest, make their own contributions to the gnomic ebb and flow. Theo , for one, “can’t help feeling it will get worse before it gets better,” and utters the odd phrase in Latin — “gratias tibi” — to advance his cause.
Admirers of “The Invention of Love,” myself among them, may breathe easily at the arrival of a second play to incorporate Latin into the text. Still, you have to wonder whether even that component of “The Walls” doesn’t also feel recycled. “Stella, Latin for star” — I mean, didn’t Tennessee Williams get there first?
Teevan, a Dubliner, worked on Peter Hall’s monumental production of “Tantalus,” and his own classical pedigree is impressive, to put it mildly. So it’s not that surprising to find that “The Walls” reads slightly better than it plays, perhaps because one can more lightly pass over its borrowings. As the play draws on, it becomes a virtual compendium of literary echoes, whether they be T.S. Eliot (references to “grains of sand … that had measured out eternity”) or Virginia Woolf, with talk of the “awful whirl of years.”
But lest the tone get too rarefied, Teevan’s strategy is to mix the lofty and the mundane: Crouch End, prawn wontons and British Midlands all bring us back to reality, though only the airline reference really classifies as a joke.
Mick Gordon’s direction orchestrates the fairly noisy machinations of a set that flies away and then back again, as the walls surrounding the Wall family dissolve and then reappear. (Neil Austin’s lighting design sustains its own vaguely ominous flickering act.) But I’m not sure what this talented stager — the former artistic director of west London’s Gate Theater, where Teevan has worked extensively — could have done to forestall the mounting sense of strain.
The happy exception among the cast is the redoubtable Higgins, a onetime National Theater mainstay (she won an Olivier for the revival seven years ago of “Sweet Bird of Youth”), who sails through even the most overripe passages with real elan. Near the end, she’s talking to nonexistent walls — Shirley Valentine, eat your heart out — and launching a truly Pirandellian march on that fourth wall, which, of course, includes the audience. Those hardy enough to sit out “The Walls” may find themselves contemplating a march of a different sort, in which case they are strongly encouraged to take Higgins with them.