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When Irish Eyes Don't Smile 

A domineering dad from Cork makes frightful props out of his sons

It's no news flash that we all play certain roles in our families, and these roles often have sharp edges that cut deep if anybody dares to expand their assigned characterization. That's why we've all felt that steely glance from the folks when we try to redefine ourselves.

This curious dynamic is taken to ridiculous and discomforting depths in Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce, now at Dobama Theatre. The Irish playwright has fashioned a steamy petri dish of rigid ritual that is almost suffocating in its single-minded focus. That makes it a bit confusing and hard to watch at times, even as the laughs keep coming. But generally fine performances by Dobama's four actors keep you riveted until the inevitable, tragic ending.

Cooped up in a shoddy highrise in London, daddy Dinny orchestrates daily mini-dramas with his two grown sons, reenacting their family history, back when Dinny was the "King Kong of Cork," their hometown in Ireland. These stories involve a disputed inheritance and some murders, and are acted by these three louts with all the subtlety of the Three Stooges. And every day, someone wins the trophy for "best actor," with the odds tilted toward Dad since he's the only judge.

Dinny makes himself the centerpiece of the vignettes while large, lumbering, and bewigged Blake plays all the women, including his own dearly missed Mammy. For his parts, Sean snaps on an elastic-strap mustache to play Dinny's dopey brother, among other gents. Toting cardboard coffins and getting weepy when the cassette deck plays "Tura-Lura-Lural," this thespian trio from hell sketches out a spotty, squalid, but often boisterously amusing picture of their past.

In separate but related scenes, the sons also play themselves as boys who were involved with some unfortunate occurrences, one including the anal skewering of a dog with a pole. This is enacted with the help of a stuffed dog, as the boys explain their actions under the ever-watchful eye of their father, who punishes any deviation from his mandated script.

Clearly, the farce referred to in the title is in full force here, but there is a more subversive dynamic in play. By trapping the audience in this seedy apartment (designed in detritus-chic by Ron Newell), and among these clearly deranged individuals, playwright Walsh compels us to inhabit this claustrophobic world where myths reign supreme over a much less interesting reality.

The one breath of fresh air is introduced when Hayley, a clerk from the local grocery, comes by with a sack of food Sean left by mistake. He buys the same items every day, as props for the scenes they enact, and Hayley seems to have been taken with the young man. However, her presence as an outsider — and the fact that she's not white — start swirling the tensions in this make-believe madhouse. So the door locks are latched, Hayley is trapped, and things really start getting weird.

As Dinny, Bob Goddard is consistently riveting, keeping his boys in check with intimidating looks and the occasional slap. His rapture, when immersed in his fantasy dramas, is equally involving, and serves as a solid foundation for a script that could easily fly apart.

Andrew Cruse, an excellent actor, plays the part of a really bad actor with conviction, making grand and horsey gestures to please his father. But he also conveys Sean's queasiness within this strange family unit, and he manages to communicate how much Sean wants to escape the maniacal, never-ending loop in which he's entangled.

Portraying all the females, Daniel McElhaney as Blake is thoroughly immersed in his tasks, which leads to many laughs, uneasy as they may be. But he has a difficult time differentiating one woman from another, with all of them coming out in a screechy falsetto. Carly Germany plays Hayley with a sweet innocence that is soon abused by Sean's whacked-out family.

Turning in perhaps his finest work to date as a director, Mark Moritz sparks Walsh's psychotic vision to life by drawing in the audience, even against their will, as these desperately flawed specimens writhe in self-imposed misery.

Those acquainted with the trajectory of Irish playwriting will find The Walworth Farce a stimulating addition to the works of writers such as Martin McDonagh, whose The Pillowman Dobama recently produced. There are demons aplenty in the Irish psyche, and this is one more fascinating example.

Send feedback to scene@clevescene.com.

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