Denis Conway and Garrett Lombard
in The Walworth Farce
(© Keith Pattison)
Denis Conway and Garrett Lombard
in The Walworth Farce
(© Keith Pattison)
We all need our little rituals to get by. Those employed by the agoraphobic, all-male household depicted in Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce -- a Druid Theater Company of Galway production now at St. Ann's Warehouse -- are a bit more elaborate than most. As a result, audiences may be thoroughly confounded for much of the play, but the intriguingly fractured picture eventually comes into focus.

There are two locales involved, though we see only one: a South London council flat, which designer Sabine Dargent has rendered convincingly scuzzy. The other setting, summoned solely in imagination, is a fancy suburban house overlooking the Irish city of Cork, where this dysfunctional trio once enjoyed better, or at least more normal, days.

Paterfamilias Dinny (Denis Conway) has browbeaten his two grown sons, Blake and Sean (Garrett Lombard and Tadhg Murphy), into a daily ritual in which they compulsively reenact a set of defining scenes from their shared family history. The play-within-a-play, which we see in fits and starts, involves an inheritance dispute followed by a spate of murders. Hints are gradually dropped that this farcical scenario -- for which Dinny holds out the promise of an "acting trophy" (invariably awarded to himself) -- may be his comedically aggrandized version of an even more horrific story.

The sons retain only one real sense memory from childhood: The aroma of their mother's roast chicken, which clung to their sweaters when, at ages seven and five, they joined their father in exile. Contrast that image with a "farce" anecdote involving two mischievous little boys and an impaled dog, and you'll have a good feel for the sensibilities at play here.

There are layers upon layers to each fast-moving scene; but the first act, rife with hyperstylized and intentionally bad acting, often fails to engage. Murphy's Sean, arms stiff as a puppet's, is extraordinarily inept -- or perhaps he simply means to indicate his opposition to the exercise. Charged with all the female roles, Blake fully commits to his portrayals -- including a frumpy housewife, a mankiller vixen, and a society matron -- and Lombard is brilliant at these quick-change sketches. Indeed, the action is all very clever and sprightly, but you may find yourself repeatedly wondering where all of this is going.

The play's tone takes an abrupt shift once Hayley (Mercy Ojelade), a supermarket checkout girl, appears on the scene with the groceries that Sean, flummoxed by the flirtation she initiated, had left behind. Suddenly, the stakes are ratcheted up. It quickly becomes apparent that she has ventured into a madhouse; what remains uncertain is the effect that this unforeseen factor will have on the volatile elements already at work. The fact that's she's not white may at first seem incidental -- but nothing in Walsh's script is left to chance. Overtones of colonialism, appropriation, and assimilation are inevitable.

Moreover, the question of Hayley's fate lends immediacy to what might otherwise be merely an intricate, often mordantly funny rumination on relationships gone grotesquely awry. Hayley is an innocent thrust into a psychological charnel house. If she can't survive the trauma that threatens to engulf her, what chance is there for the rest of us?