Walsh is not exactly a household name: Unlike his major-league dramatic brethren, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, who’ve both had multiple plays on Broadway, the 43-year-old playwright has yet to see even one of his dramas produced there (although he is working on the book of a stage musical based on “Once,” the offbeat 2006 Irish movie musical).
And yet, because of the widening admiration he’s garnering in the theater world — an appreciation partly based on, yes, his facility with the mother tongue — Walsh’s renown is on the upswing. Prima facie evidence of that momentum is being introduced at the moment in Washington, where Studio Theatre has undertaken one of the most ambitious surveys of his recent plays occurring anywhere.
Running now through May 1, “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival” represents an important milestone for both the playwright and the host theater. The serving up of Walsh’s highly praised “Penelope,” along with “The New Electric Ballroom” and “The Walworth Farce,” is, as far as the playwright knows, the first time the three pieces have been presented as a set. The offering is a departure, too, for Studio, which only on rare occasions has spotlighted a single dramatist so intensively. And even rarer is the international partnership Studio has formed, inviting the Galway-based Druid Theatre to participate, with its production of “Penelope.”
“Penelope,” in the estimation of some critics and theater people, may be the best play to date to emerge from Walsh’s wild imagination. Inspired by the story in Homer’s “Odyssey” of the suitors for Odysseus’s wife, the 90-minute piece depicts four lumpy middle-aged men in skimpy bathing suits, grilling a meal on the floor of an empty swimming pool and awaiting their dread fates. It’s an absurdist reckoning of the measure of one’s impact on the world at the end of one’s life.
“I love that he is indebted to and inspired by a great dramatic tradition in Ireland and at the same time is willing to smash that tradition to bits,” says David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, who worked with his predecessor, Joy Zinoman to put the festival together. “And I love when you can find a writer who is writing in a non-realistic style but at the core is very human.”
The Studio festival is an acknowledgment of the dazzling effect that a wave of Irish dramatists is having on the world’s stages. McDonagh (who’s actually Anglo-Irish) and McPherson lead a pack that includes, among others, Walsh, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, all of whom have their own distinctive styles but collectively reflect an indigenous storytelling tradition that was earlier popularized in the plays of Dion Boucicault and John Millington Synge.