“One lie leads to the next,” cautions Dinny, the mad dad who runs the play-within-a-play in “The Walworth Farce” with an iron fist. He should know: He’s made his favorite lies into the farce. The falsehoods come thick and fast in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s gristly new tragicomedy, a jaw-dropping yarn about Dinny’s family, which is doomed to act out endless encore performances of his delusions. You can feel the tightly-structured four-hander rattling toward its bloody climax almost from the moment it begins, but impending doom doesn’t stop the “Farce” from being horribly funny.
Before any of the actors speak their lines in this imported drama –premiered in Ireland by the Galway-based Druid company in 2006 — it’s apparent something is very wrong with this family. The flat they live in is all but destroyed, with chunks of drywall barely clinging to the studs and ratty furniture infesting the living room. As Dinny’s son Sean (a deftly daft Tadhg Murphy) puts it in his dad’s play, “The cockroaches have done cockroaching, and all that’s left is London people.”
The flat in London’s Walworth neighborhood is merely a refuge for the three expat Irishmen, true, but they’ve been there for a long time. Dinny (Denis Conway) spirited his sons away from their home and their mother in Cork 19 years earlier, but after that things get fuzzy. Why did he do it? According to Dinny, his farce answers that question, but his sons are old enough to doubt him.
Dinny could have had a great career writing for “Fawlty Towers” if he wasn’t so busy being crazy. Walsh saves the family’s nasty secrets until the last possible moment, and the blissfully ignorant audience gets to enjoy the low-comedy stylings of the three men in their nine-character play-within-a-play, featuring Sean’s brother Blake (Garrett Lombard) as all the girls.
In a production performed by four wonderful actors, Lombard’s study of Blake stands out. What would dressing up as a parody of a woman for 19 years do to a young man? Lombard shows us, miraculously, without sacrificing any of the humor.
When, at the end of the first act, a Tesco checkout clerk named Haley (Mercy Ojelade) comes into the apartment, we get an inkling of just how damaged Blake is. Haley fascinates him because she’s everything Blake is not: small, feminine, urban and black.
Walsh prods at that last characteristic too much; one specific indignity visited on Haley is so revolting that it takes us out of the play and turns us against the author, rather than the villainous characters.
Thankfully, Haley isn’t the focus of the proceedings. That dubious honor goes to Dinny, a grinning, shouting monster who always seems just about to burst out of his electric blue leisure suit. As the play builds, Dinny seems to wind tighter and tighter. This time, maybe he’ll be able to believe his own lies. This time, maybe he can climb into his own play, close the trap door behind him, and never come out.
“The Walworth Farce” doesn’t let up, but it doesn’t let down, either. With this backhanded tribute to Irish tall-tale telling, Walsh is fast on his way to filling the space in the theater world momentarily vacated by Martin McDonagh while he focuses on film. His clever play coaxes battered laughs, looses buckets of blood, and all but immolates itself in its efforts to impress. Mission accomplished.