Unholy Trinities: Art and The Walworth Farce,  reviewed

Mitchell Hébert and John Lescault / photo by Scott Suchman

Art by Yasmina Reza; translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Matt Gardiner
At Signature Theatre to May 22

To frame things as reductively as possible, Yasmina Reza’s Art and Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce are both about two guys reacting to the alarming behavior of a third.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty slim commonality. Dinny, the tyrannical patriarch who runs the show in Walworth, is violent, delusional, sadistic—the very model of a modern major depressive sociopath. Serge, the catalyst of Art, is merely pretentious, dropping 200,000 clams on a painting that appears to his pals, and to us, to be a blank white canvas. “The resonance of the monochromatic doesn’t really happen under artificial light,” he explains, like an emperor protesting that his new clothes need only be brought in a bit.

Serge is a dermatologist by trade. That a surface unperturbed by form or color would call out to his soul is one of the better jokes here, which is to say this is neither the funniest nor the most insightful work ever to win the Tony Award for best play, which it did, or to follow its denouement with a deflating coda, which it does.

Anyway, the painting is just a McGuffin. So for that matter is the title, but would you see a play called Friendship? I wouldn’t. Even so, that’s the real subject of Reza’s widely translated comedy: It’s a close examination of how one big-ticket splurge forces three middle-aged guys to confront the fissures that’ve slowly spread through their longtime bro-dom. And while a trio of sturdy-to-sterling actors inhabit these roles in Signature Theatre’s new production, they’re not so good we forget how little is ultimately at stake. If crusty classicist Marc (a nuanced and very funny Mitchell Hébert) turns out to be just the atrophied, judgmental “nostalgia merchant” that his modernist chum Serge (John Lescault, all entitlement and ease) accuses him of being, well, so what? The Pompidou isn’t going to close without his support.

Our emotional point of entry here could be Yvan, the soft corner of the triangle, whom the others keep around to echo their own opinions, or else to laugh at the way everyday trials continually overmatch him. Yvan’s slow realization that neither of his friends respect him should pack a punch, but Michael Russotto’s performance is so broad compared to the layered work Hébert and Lescault are doing that he seems to be in another show. (Specifically, Seinfeld.)

A similar lack of focus afflicts the set: If Marc and Serge both allow their taste in art to define so much of their identities, why are their apartments identical save for the landscape hanging on Marc’s wall that Serge dismisses as “Flemish”? Yes, it’s the same plot of stage, but you’d think designer James Kronzer could have found some way to make the two habitats appear different enough to reflect each man’s worldview. It’s an unwise thing to let our preferences in art, music, or politics govern our preferences in people, and to befriend someone who can see more that we can should only improve one’s life. Could, shoulda, woulda: In actual fact, sometimes people just wear out their welcome, and Art does, too.

The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh
Directed by Matt Torney;
At Studio Theatre to May 1

Where Art feels discursive and casual, The Walworth Farce is urgent and entrancing even when you can’t exactly locate yourself in the narrative woods, which may be the mildly panicky state in which you spend much of the first act. This second entry in Studio Theatre’s three-part Enda Walsh festival is, like next week’s The New Electric Ballroom, a new production directed by Matt Torney. (The festival opener, a visiting production of Penelope by Ireland’s Druid Theatre, was as compelling as Walworth but even more abstruse.)

Ted van Griethuysen and Aubrey Deeker /photo by Carol Pratt

As is typical with Walsh—one of a handful of still-youngish dramatists responsible for a raft of bracing theater that’s come out of Ireland since the mid-’90s—the opening moments here are aggressively bemusing: The burly Dinny (Ted van Griethuysen in a bad suit and worse wig) goes down for some deep knee-bends while slim Blake (Aubrey Deeker) irons and slips into a dress. Sean (Alex Morf, whose performance is perhaps the most affecting in a show full of astonishing ones) appears more disquieted by the sausage in his grocery bag than mere vegetarianism can excuse. His shaved-down-the-dome hairdo, a cruel parody of male middle age, is unsettling enough to make us fear him.

What emerges through the haze is that Dinny forces his two sons to perform a highly theatrical, ritualized re-enactment of some gruesome bad craziness that compelled him to flee Cork for South London long ago. The particulars of Dinny’s crimes remain opaque to me, but seem to involve a roast chicken with a gelatinous green sauce that may recall the school-lunch periods you—OK, I—spent combining the various unappetizing components on the tray into a truly repellent compound that you/I then dared friends to sample.

Anyway! They’ve been staging this twisted passion play every day for years. Their father gives notes as they go. Any actor who’s ever suffered under an imperious director may find van Griethuysen’s turn particularly seizure-inducing.

Sean makes the daily run to Tesco for the food the show requires, but today several key items are missing. When an impossibly kind clerk from the store (Azania Dungee) tails him home and climbs the 15 flights up to his council flats prison tower to return a bag Sean left, her intrusion is a relief. The performances-within-performances in Act 1, wherein Sean and Blake skip from role to role (and wig to wig) embodying various among their relatives, are exhausting. We’re grateful for an interloper whose arrival forces all the players, at least temporarily, into the present.

Of course, crazy people are crazy adaptable—they can channel new information into the architecture of their mania even faster than they can change wigs. (Sorry. There are more, and more egregious, wigs in this thing than in Dreamgirls.) Dinny instantly finds a role for the girl from Tesco, and suddenly Sean’s got more on his mind than Dad’s incessant script changes.

If Dungee’s performance as the girl-in-jeopardy seems kind of one-note, it’s only because Walsh gives the three men present so much more to do. Morf, and Deeker are each brilliant at balancing their manifold motivations, and van Griethuysen will haunt anyone who’s ever feared their father’s rage. When the climactic explosion comes, it’s no less harrowing for its inevitability. But it’s in the chilling moments after where The Walworth Farce shows us how being typecast can ruin an actor’s life.

Versions of these reviews appear in today’s Washington City Paper.

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