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Peter Marks reviews Enda Walsh’s ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ at Studio Theatre

The three sisters of Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom” are, like the celebrated siblings of Che­khov’s play, linked forever by blood and thwarted potential. The elders of the trio, Breda (Sybil Lines) and Clara (Nancy Robinette), loll about, archiving their reminiscences of extinguished romantic hopes, while their younger sister Ada (Jennifer Mendenhall) takes care of the household and waits longingly for her chance to create her own passionate memories.

This gracefully acted, 90-minute drama completes the three-play festival of Walsh’s work that Studio Theatre has so lovingly assembled. And while “The New Electric Ballroom” does not come close to the dynamic level of “Penelope” — the biting, absurdist riff on “The Odyssey” that commenced this intriguing survey of the writer’s recent works — it is in its own softer way an engaging illumination of love’s labors’ losses.

Although the time seems to be the present, the situation and surroundings of “Ballroom” feel temporally frozen, the way things tend to, in a sleepy Irish fishing village. The sense of time standing still is reinforced in the brightly colored articles hanging on the wall of the sisters’ spare cottage: three party outfits from a night out long ago, when Breda and Clara each had a flickering moment of carnal possibility.

“We don’t want to be alone, but we are alone,” says the most aggressive of the sisters, Breda, played by Lines with an effective, brittle authority. The exertions of Breda and Clara — the latter in Robinette’s finely chirping performance forever going on about the marvels of her tiny feet — mostly concern dimming the expectations of Ada, who shuffles along under a perpetual cloud in Mendenhall’s expertly self-contained portrayal.

The director, Matt Torney, who handled the same duties in Studio’s third Walsh offering, “The Walworth Farce,” firmly and sensitively shepherds his actors through the landscape of their characters’ reveries. The psychic perspective of “Ballroom” is the reverse of that in “Penelope,” in which the assorted suitors for the title character live in dread anticipation of their approaching doom; the women of “Ballroom” are trapped in the past, endlessly reenacting the purported thrills of an evening at the titular dance palace, in which a local playboy supposedly made passes at the elder two.

Torney’s sound guidance includes eliciting a delightful performance from the evening’s fourth player, Liam Craig, in the role of the aptly named Patsy, a fishmonger and inveterate gossip who shows up regularly at the sisters’ door with fresh seafood. “I come with the tide,” he declares, and indeed, Patsy seems a washed-up product of the seaside — until a whiff of sex enters the room, rendered with almost sullen sparseness by set designer Debra Booth.

It is the change in the women’s attitude toward Patsy, from contempt to something warmer, that ignites the play’s one electric interlude: Patsy assumes the part of the wooer in Breda and Clara’s amorous fantasy, and serenades Ada with a lounge singer’s masculine sultriness. Craig adds an admirable air of the enigmatic to Patsy’s surprising transformation.

An audience can feel how ferociously the act turns on Mendenhall’s suffocating Ada, though Walsh’s occasional literary self-consciousness places constraints on the scene’s poignancy. You remain a bit more impressed by the writer’s poetic gift than absorbed with the characters’ drives and desires.

Nevertheless, “The New Electric Ballroom” provides another evening’s worth of evidence of why it was smart to make so much room for Walsh in Studio’s schedule. Even if breakthroughs aren’t in the cards for Ada and her sisters, bigger things lay ahead for the man who made them up.

The New Electric Ballroom

by Enda Walsh. Directed by Matt Torney. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; sound, Martin Desjardins; fight director, Robb Hunter; dialect coach, Nancy Krebs. About 90 minutes. Through May 1 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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