If Susan Boyle had never been catapulted into global fame by the Simon Cowell juggernaut, one imagines she might have spent a satisfyingly ordinary life in a quiet rural village with her beloved cats for company. Or she might have ended up like the three sisters in The New Electric Ballroom—currently playing as a part of Studio Theatre’s Enda Walsh festival—passing her days in an increasingly isolated and dementedly insular form of playacting, in which memory is real life, repetition is inevitable, and boredom is paramount.
If the comparison to the “I Dreamed a Dream” singer is unfair, it’s necessary only because one of Walsh’s characters, Clara (played in an impeccably dotty way by Nancy Robinette) bears a distinct resemblance to pre-makeover Boyle, complete with intimidatingly bushy eyebrows, unkempt hair, and makeup that brings to mind a four-year-old who raided her mother’s bathroom. In Walsh’s play, which debuted to critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008, Clara lives in an antiquated house in a tiny Irish fishing village with her sisters, Breda (Sybil Lines) and Ada (Jennifer Mendenhall). Breda and Clara have been recluses ever since an incident that brought them public shame many years before; Ada, who works as a bookkeeper for a fishing company in town and is almost 20 years younger, is their only contact with the outside world. Their mantra: “Keep safe. Inside. Always.”
Of course, four decades looking at nothing but the same four walls can start to wear a body down, so the older sisters have devised their own method of entertaining, which involves reenacting, over and over, the events that condemned them to a life of isolation. One assumes that the eventual revelation is going to be world-shaking, or at the very least dramatic. Instead, what emerges is that many years ago the sisters attended a disco ten miles away, at the New Electric Ballroom, where they both fell victim (relatively innocently) to the charms of a ’50s crooner, precipitating the kind of gossip that has kept them inside most of their lives.
As Clara and Breda take turns telling their story, orchestrated fanatically by Ada, it becomes clear how much they both detest and rely on each other. The jealousy of a romantic rivalry 40 years ago has seeped into their core, prompting vicious insults and profanities. They both dress, somewhat grotesquely, in the same outfits they once wore, now several sizes too small. Ada—played with grace and precision by Mendenhall—is both their baby and their dominator: They ship her off for naps and coddle her, but it’s obvious she controls everything in the house, from the tea that’s repeatedly mentioned but never made to the biscuits (Irish for cookies) that are doled out sparingly, punctuating the endless tedium.
Those expecting a catastrophic revelation from that fateful night at the ballroom might be disappointed, but they get their cataclysmic event eventually from an unlikely source: a daft and bothersome fishmonger, Patsy (Liam Craig), who drops in on the sisters several times in hope of company, despite the fact that they shower him with abuse and slam the door in his face. And yet, one final time, even as he responds with anger, they invite him in, prompting an occurrence so shocking and unexpected that it changes things forever. Craig is flawless in the role, visibly changing shape while expressing the heartbreaking pangs of longing that all four characters suffer.
Walsh takes cues from another great Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, with his surreal, dreamlike prose, his underlying sense of menace, and his adherence to a plot in which much is talked of but little ever happens. But Walsh also bears comparison to Harold Pinter, whose intricate attention to status, hierarchy, and power turn seemingly innocent text into fraught conflict. Power changes hands so often in The New Electric Ballroom that you forget who had it in the first place, instead noticing only how deftly it switches from character to character. And yet—despite stellar performances from the four cast members and thoughtful direction from Matt Torney—the production isn’t quite as gripping as it needs to be. Walsh’s commitment to a play about endless tedium is admirable, but most audiences need more than McVitie’s biscuits and stories to keep them entertained. And the frightening makeup the sisters wear ends up lending them a campy element that distracts from the subtlety of the writing.
“Things can never change here, can they? I really have to leave,” says Ada, presumably not knowing that events will change, and yet not in the way she had hoped. The New Electric Ballroom is a cautionary tale about fear so deep it can condemn you forever, delivering a worse fate than might have otherwise been the case. Unfortunately for the audience, that sense of inertia and dreariness can also occasionally be contagious.
The New Electric Ballroom is at Studio Theatre through May 1. Tickets ($35 to $57) are available at Studio’s Web site.