Even more than in Enda Walsh’s previous plays, the characters in “The New Electric Ballroom” are trapped by stories and memories, “branded, marked and scarred by talk.” The author of “The Walworth Farce” directs its quieter companion piece with minute attention to the rituals of performance, as three middle-aged sisters obsessively re-enact a pivotal scene from their 1950s girlhood. Shunning the fishing village outside, they torment each other with what might have been. Trapped in a linguistic loop, they could be sisters of “Endgame’s” Hamm and Clov, but Walsh goes beyond Beckett and creates his own brilliantly skewed world.
Taking turns dressing each other in the surreally gaudy dance clothes of their youth, the older sisters, Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Val Lilley), provide two different perspectives on the night their hopes of love were obliterated at the local dance hall. Catherine Walsh plays their younger sister Ada as a sadistic director of ceremonies, strapping them into their stilettos, gouging their faces with lipstick.
While they might call to mind Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” their extravagant role-playing has more in common with Genet’s “Maids,” with a sense of theatricality heightened by designer Sabine Dargent’s fluorescent costumes.
Thesps Walsh and Linehan take possession of the intense rush of words with total precision, with Linehan adding a convincing tinge of cruelty toward Lilley’s Clara in her quieter moments.
Issuing stern instructions, Ada becomes a Foley artist, carefully controlling the soundtrack of the past on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. While this device seems to be a deliberate echo of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” playwright Walsh ruptures the sisters’ hermetic Beckettian existence by introducing the character of Patsy the fishmonger (Mikel Murfi), a confused soul who is grudgingly allowed to cross the threshold.
“A man of no great purpose,” he calls himself, but he has the potential to jolt Ada into the present. He’s rivetingly played by Murfi, who directed Druid’s production of “The Walworth Farce,” and seems to share Enda Walsh’s sensibility.
Patsy’s initially comic soliloquies capture a sense of bottomless loneliness, echoing Breda’s assertion that “we don’t want to be alone but we’re alone.” In an absurdly funny setpiece that takes an ironic tilt at Ireland’s show-band era, Patsy lights up under the sisters’ direction, before his own surprising history brings them brutally back to the past.
“Doesn’t story always find a way to catch us out Patsy?” Ada asks, as if “story” was some kind of autonomous power, holding us all captive.
In scribe Walsh’s universe, it is. Ada can’t be allowed to escape from the story of lost love that she enacts every day with her sisters. She is “stamped by story, boxed by words.”
Ada’s collapse at Patsy’s departure recalls Pegeen Mike’s lament for her Playboy in J. M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” But as the sisters’ bizarre performance loop starts up again, there’s a possibility that it might have its own consolations: not just the tea and cake that Clara craves, but the muted acceptance that “we’ve all got our roles to play,” this is how we live. Enda Walsh takes us into a theatrical echo chamber and then opens doors that are unexpectedly, unforgettably his own.