Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.
The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.
Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.
The action, such as it is, involves a fair amount of pacing and the tossing-about of a tea cake and some platters of fish, and the ritualistic stripping-off of clothes and donning of memory-costumes, and, at one fine point, a scramble to the top of a table to croon an old rock’n’roll love song. That unlikely scrambler would be Patsy (Todd Van Voris), the town fishmonger, who shows up regularly with the tide and a fresh pot of fish, and seems to have a hankering for Ada, though it’s tough to tell for sure, and who often walks right in to the sisters’ cottage and starts to gab even though the women tell him rudely to go away. He doesn’t, of course, because somehow Patsy’s locked into their strange shared tale, a tale that goes back decades and involves a ballroom and a ten-mile bike ride to a rock’n’roll palace and a girl who looks like Doris Day and an Irish Elvis sort of a local rock star called the Roller Royle, whose gyrations make young hearts and other strategic portions of the anatomy throb like nobody’s business.
I have a feeling Ballroom could be funnier than it is here, the kind of funny you can get from Pinter and Beckett when they’re approached that way. But it’s a cold sort of funny, a dried-in-the-teat sort of funny, without much milk of human kindness: more a laughter into the abyss. One peculiarity is that Breda and Clara, as we gradually figure out, are close to twenty years older than their sister Ada, and surely there’s a story in that, though I don’t recall hearing it. That age gap isn’t much noticeable onstage, and so something that ought to be immediately apparent becomes a gradual realization, a groping-toward on the part of the audience that gets in the way, a bit, of what’s going on.
At Sunday’s matinee performance, at least, I also had the feeling that the three sisters were groping a bit toward the centers of their roles. Porter, Bahr, and Kondrat are excellent actors, and yet it felt they hadn’t quite settled in: they were still doing the language a bit too much, not yet relaxed into the characters so the comedy could flow a little more easily. Van Voris was on another level, making love to the words, bathing in them, wearing them like skin, practically singing the role. It was a lovely thing to watch, and towards the end, when he’s spinning a future for Ada and Patsy, practically rhapsodizing on the possibilities, and she holds her hands out and he cups his close to hers but won’t won’t won’t quite touch them, and you fear the whole thing might come tumbling down like a shatter of used-up verbs, the tension’s just about killer. That’s where you get a taste of the possibilities of the play: a yearning yearning yearning that won’t quite meet. And if the rest of it doesn’t reach this peak, well, that’s why it’s called a peak, I guess.
All of this is played out on a fine kitchen sink of a set by Kristeen Willis Crosser, the sort of plain-jane domestic myth of a place that reminds you of the stomping grounds of the playboy of the western world or the cozy-rough habitations of the troubled souls of Inishmaan. Costumes, so central to the dreams and desires of these characters, are by Janet Cadmus, and the intimate lighting is by Jennifer Lin. The talking’s by Walsh, and it does flow on.
Third Rail Rep’s The New Electric Ballroom continues through April 30 at Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.