So it all comes down to this, does it? Wasted years spent wallowing in an empty swimming pool, grilling sausages on a broken barbecue while waiting on a woman who has no plans ever to accede to our nonstop romantic serenades. And — oh, right — at the end of the vigil, the prospect of a gruesome death at the hands of her long-absent husband.
Hey, that’s life! Or that’s what Enda Walsh makes of it, anyway, in his snarling, mesmerizing howl of a black comedy, “Penelope,” which is smoldering nightly in a bonfire of verbs and adjectives at Studio Theatre. The production, which has come to the capital courtesy of the Druid Theatre of Galway, Ireland, is a 90-minute wrangle with some captivating metaphors, a match of verbal wit that compels you to wonder anew at what we’ve all been put here to accomplish.
Don’t be deceived by the seeming stasis of “Penelope,” which has been directed with apt dashes of panache by Mikel Murfi. It’s ostensibly four untoned guys of varying ages killing time in bathrobes and Speedos. But much else is percolating on this turbulent evening, ideas grotesque and radiant, unsettling and reassuring. “We’re the talking dead,” murmurs one of this doomed quartet, as he and the others ever more desperately turn to the question of the meaning of their lives, on the certain precipice of extinction.
For the next month and a half, the Dublin-born Walsh will be Topic A at Studio, which is presenting “Penelope” and two of his other works of recent vintage, “The New Electric Ballroom” and “The Walworth Farce,” under the heading “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival.” (The two other plays, both directed by Matt Torney, are Studio productions.) The “new” in this case should stand for freshness, for Walsh — author also of “Disco Pigs” and “Bedbound” — is emblematic of an exhilarating portfolio of playwriting being exported these days from Ireland.
The inspiration for “Penelope” comes from the ancillary sequence in Homer’s “Odyssey” concerning the suitors, those presumptuous interlopers who, taking advantage of Odysseus’s decades-long separation from wife Penelope, park themselves at her doorstep, hoping to win her hand. As in Tom Stoppard’s philosophical riff on “Hamlet,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Walsh promotes marginal figures out of a writer’s imagination to leading parts in their own story. As, too, with the Stoppard play, these characters come to the tragic realization that they can’t escape their fate, that they must endure with the knowledge that their role in the cosmos, like ours, is ultimately inconsequential.
The playwright invites us to eavesdrop in the waning hours of the suitors who have outlasted all the competition, four men ranging in age from about their late 20s to their 60s: Fitz (Niall Buggy), the oldest; Burns (Aaron Monaghan), the youngest; Dunne (Denis Conway), the vainest; and Quinn (Karl Shiels), the angriest. The drained pool under Penelope’s balcony becomes a grim man cave in which they serve out their enforced leisure, an ordeal interrupted by summonses to a microphone at which they attempt to woo silky, sphinxlike Penelope (Olga Wehrly) with words.
The aggressive affinities of men — for the hunt, for the throne, for the win for winning’s sake — all emerge in the pathetic power games in the tiled pool, rendered cleverly by set designer Sabine Dargent. She’s also responsible for the costumes — or, in some instances, the skimpiness thereof: These lumpy specimens are supposed to be advertising their assets for the object of their desire. The minimal coverage, of course, does them no favors. It puts the accent on the swimsuited suitors’ unsuitability.
The poignancy of the piece resides in the conflicting beliefs that some of the men cling to. They’re aware their odds are ludicrously long, and yet, they stubbornly resist conceding defeat. In other words, they still believe in love.
In its initial minutes, the play advances these ideas with an airless solemnity that reminds you of the more somber moments of Samuel Beckett. Soon, however, the men, spurred by a shared vision of Odysseus’s bloody revenge on them, spring to some concerted action, and the play gains in urgency. Pounding his tanned oiled chest, strutting and spitting insults at his rivals, Shiels’s Quinn is the most primitive of the suitors, and his hormone-fueled tirades push the other men to more nuanced responses to this day of reckoning.
The sublime Buggy, playing the meekest of the four, delivers the play’s most lyrical address, a whispered valentine to Penelope that starts as a fumbling monologue and results in an eloquent declaration of his sense of worthlessness. The speech is far more seductive than any of the sycophantic or self-serving encomiums directed her way. Conway, meanwhile, has fun with one of just those types of arias, a soliloquy that reveals nothing except Dunne’s clueless narcissism.
Shiels, with the sardonic assistance of Monaghan’s resentfully servile Burns, is accorded the night’s most surreal bit of stage business. It’s a garish and at times shocking expression of Quinn’s own stormy state of agitation, a series of pantomimes of violent and passionate endings from history and fiction.
Small wonder his reenactments depend so heavily on the surefire dramatic possibilities of death scenes. “Penelope” is obsessed with them, with how we might behave and what we might reflect on as the clock runs out. Walsh’s dexterity lets us laugh at and evaluate and savor the predicaments of these men, even as we’re chilled to the bone.
by Enda Walsh. Directed by Mike Murfi. Set and costumes, Sabine Dargent; lighting, Paul Keogan; sound, Gregory Clarke. About 90 minutes. Through April 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.