The Irish playwright Enda Walsh can feel right at home in the U.S.—besides winning an Obie  for The New Electric Ballroom (2010), Penelope, his new tale of unproductive, languishing men–who don’t do or “make anything”–will resonate for a nation that’s been outsourced.  Ireland itself, staring down 14 percent unemployment and a decimated property market, also knows something about trying to boogie in an empty swimming pool with a barbecue that won’t light (appropriately enough, our tale is set in Greece). Walsh himself may have had no idea of his prescience, that he was finding a metaphor for the Recession—as he told the Guardian, “As much as I want to live in the real world, I can only operate properly in my imagination, which I hate. . . . It’s a stupid way to live . . .” Actually, he seems to be rather torn up about it—his characters wonder if they’ve tossed life aside, merely subsisted, lived unadventurously, their hours in Speedos consumed with fantasies, plotting, and greed—they can’t even swim. The play is, of course, The Odyssey made absurd, postmodern, with something of the mummers about it. It’s seen through the eyes of Homer’s suitors—husbands-to-be who want to gain Odysseus’ kingdom by taking his wife. Shrewdly, for twenty years, Penelope has been dodging matrimony, but now even she is on the verge of succumbing to entreaty, despite the fact that the men are about as romantic as collection agents.  They’re certainly consumed by death: “These days it’s difficult to remember where I’ve come from.  I might close my eyes and shards of past lie next to bits of half-memories and it’s impossible to tell whether I’ve featured in my own life and what needs saving from it and what needs saving now.” Facing mortality in their own ways, Niall Buggy, Denis Conway, Tadgh Murphy, Karl Shiels, and Olga Wehrly are excellent—the direction is by Mikel Murfi.  Elmer Rice also considered the consequences of the unlived life in The Adding Machine—there it was blamed on employers.  In Penelope it’s nobody’s fault but our own.

© 2010 by Bob Shuman

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