Tim Cummings and Lisa Pelikan in a scene from "The New Electric Ballroom." (John Flynn )
Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" has returned to Los Angeles in a Rogue Machine production directed by John Perrin Flynn at Theatre/Theater. The play is rather hermetic in a neo-Beckettian fashion, and I don't think I fully appreciated it when the beautifully acted Druid Ireland production was presented by UCLA Live in 2009 along with its companion piece "The Walworth Farce," which I liked a good deal more.
Some plays require repeated exposures before their secret music can be discerned. And it was my hope that the intimacy of a pocket theater might provide direct access to a work that replays an old family trauma as though it were a ritualized game.
"The New Electric Ballroom" will probably never be the most resonant play for me by Walsh, one of Ireland's most original dramatic voices, with a verbal dexterity to rival that of any English language playwright working today. But Flynn's staging throbs with an exquisite vulnerability even when the mood of the play's three sisters holed up in a small cottage in a backwater fishing village grows increasingly embittered.
There's something theatrically significant about the number three when it comes to siblings, as Chekhov famously intuited. Conflicts and alliances are more dynamic when triangular. And the actresses taking on these roles in this Rogue Machine offering seem as though they've inhabited this cramped world since birth.
As the two older sisters, Lisa Pelikan's Breda, pinched with anger, eyes pooling with old sorrow, and Casey Kramer's Clara, fleshy, sweetly bovine, a soft heart stunned by cruelty, are by turns heartbreaking and exasperating as they reenact a fateful sequence of events at the titular dance hall in which romantic fantasy turned into humiliating nightmare.
Betsy Zajko's Ada, not quite ready at 40 to resign herself to a narrative with an unhappy ending, reveals the anguish of a woman who can't tell if she's directing her life script or serving as a puppet in her family's obsessive mythology.
Tim Cummings' Patsy, a fishmonger with a slow wit and galumphing tread, returns to the cottage with the changing tide to dump off a new batch of fish and to occasionally take on a role in the sisters' deranged pantomime. Fortunately, the suit that hangs on the wall of scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's cleverly compact set fits him perfectly, and when the need arises he can even croon a tune like a provincial Elvis in the old glory days of the New Electric Ballroom.
"By their nature people are talkers," Breda says at the start of the play. "You can deny that. You could but you'd be affirming what you're trying to argue against and what would the point of that be?"
For these sisters, "the breath and the word are interchangeable," part and parcel of human survival. They enact the past, burdensome as it is, to keep an even scarier emptiness at bay. Like Beckett, Walsh derives comfort from an acceptance of the existential void. The somber vaudevilles his characters compulsively return to aren't always easy to follow, but the emotion behind their theatrical expression is made crystal clear in this haunting production.