Catherine Walsh in The New Electric Ballroom
(Courtesy of Druid Theatre)
Catherine Walsh in The New Electric Ballroom
(Courtesy of Druid Theatre)
The first words of Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom, the exhilarating tragicomedy at St. Ann's Warehouse, are spoken lickety-split by a sixtyish woman with anxiety radiating from her like heat waves. Pressing her face to a craggy stone wall as if trying to communicate with someone on the other side, she insists, "By their nature people are talkers." She might just as well have said that by their nature the Irish are playwrights.

Composing in the urgently poetic tradition of Irish spellbinders as far back as William Butler Yeats, who co-founded the Abbey Theatre, Walsh has come up with a four-character work that has the power of something Samuel Becket might have produced had he chosen to write a 75-minute playlet about two women routinely and ritually expecting something to happen that looks as if it never will.

Years before the work begins, spinsters Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Ruth McCabe) went to a local West Ireland dance hall called The New Electric Ballroom to see a rock singer whom they each thought they'd enticed. The cad left, however, with a Doris Day look-alike while tunes such as Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy!" shook the venue. Now the jilted pair has walled themselves within set designer Sabine Dargent's spare grey abode with its clanging front door to reenact their fateful night for the benefit of younger sister Ada (Catherine Walsh). It's their hope the remembrance of the shared ignominy will prepare nervous Ada for coping more successfully with her potential Prince Charming.

At the same time, it's their fear that if and when the blasted man does appear, he'll be as disappointing as theirs was. That's when their regularly delivering fishmonger Patsy (Mikel Murfi) drops in one too many times begging for hospitality. Suddenly, Breda and Clara decide they'll accept the awkward fellow's desperate entreaties and prepare him for Ada in what amounts to an at-home baptism.

Walsh, from whom words drop as copiously as rain in a downpour, is partial to lengthy monologues that blend hilarity with pathos. It's as if all three sisters and their clumsy gentleman caller don't so much talk to each other as take turns talking at each other in colorful, impassioned outbursts. Breda and Clara do so while arguing over which of them prepared the hot-pink sponge cake that sits on a table and while changing into and out of the tulle-and-glitter outfits with flaming-red high-heeled shoes they wore to the dance. Meanwhile, Patsy gets to don an electric-blue-and-black tuxedo, in which he eventually reveals biographical info about his New-Electric-Ballroom-related birth that further startles the plotting sisters.

Directing his elegy, Walsh sees to it that he gets out of his talky yet fluid manuscript what he put into it. No question that he's got the cast to help him. Linehan plays tough-nut-to-crack Breda in garish make-up, while McCabe's Clara is softer and tentative but no less defeated. Walsh conveys Ada's expectant manner by almost never lowering her imploring arms. Murfi's Patsy is appropriately a hapless patsy. The first-rate acting quartet guarantees the chilling success of this ultimately gloomy if riveting play.