Karl Shiels and Niall Buggy in Penelope
(© Robert Day)
Karl Shiels and Niall Buggy in Penelope
(© Robert Day)
Offbeat doesn't begin to suggest the bizarre visions of human despair Enda Walsh conjures in an age he sees as third-rate at best. But while he hit the bull's-eye with The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, his newer work, Penelope, now at St. Ann's Warehouse, falls shorter of the mark than usual, despite the work of a first-rate cast.

Set in the modern day, but drawing inspiration from ancient times, Penelope is set in a drained pool with faded sun-baked tiles in which the suitors whom Homer introduced in The Odyssey -- macho Quinn (Karl Shiels), bald and timid Fitz (Niall Buggy), giddy and self-satisfied Dunne (Denis Conway), and painfully uncertain Burns (Tadhg Murphy) -- plot strategies for winning the hand of Penelope, the warrior Ulysses' wife.

Meanwhile, Ulysses is never seen but is a fearsome approaching presence for the men, just four of the many who've been eliminated one way or another while waiting for Penelope (the stunning Olga Wehrly, who never speaks), to choose among them.

Keeping his piece short, as his wont, Walsh envisions the fateful day when the men decide they only have a few hours before Ulysses arrives to convince Penelope she should select one of them for marriage and therefore spare the others' death at the returning hero's vengeful hand. Using a microphone and facing a camera, the men address their arguments to Penelope watching on a flat-screen monitor.

Unable to gather his thoughts fluidly, Dunne fails to engage Penelope's interest. Neither does the conniving Quinn, who offers a lengthy charade marked by many amusingly executed quick changes. On the other hand, the bald Fitz, speaking in uncertain low tones but from the heart, does prompt Penelope -- sitting in her beautifully draped green dress and placed above the pool behind the glass on Sabine Dargent's evocative set -- to rise and actually look at him. Making the last speech, Burns -- heretofore a seeming flunky to the others -- is even more persuasive with his surprisingly philosophical oration about life and new beginnings. But he, too, is ultimately equally unsuccessful in his quest.

The performances, well directed by Mikel Murfi, are all extremely effective. Shiels is often hilarious as he struts about with blatantly dyed-black hair styled in one ominous front curl. Buggy makes Fitz -- who derives whatever solace he can muster from reading Homer -- palpable in his acquiescence. Conway's Dunne is a recognizable social dunce, and the thin Murphy's Burns is properly pathetic.

While they present their pleas with irresistible conviction, there's nonetheless something a bit pretentious about Walsh's point that men today no longer have the potential to live large (like Ulysses) but instead have retreated into pointless vanity. Moreover, the point is made long before play's end -- and impatience does not make a theatergoer's heart grow fonder.