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Theatre in Review: Rooms (Irish Arts Center)/Arlington (St. Ann's Warehouse)

Top: Room 303. Bottom: Hugh O'Conor, Charlie Murphy. Photo: Teddy Wolff

There's a haunting going on at Cybert Tire, a former auto care business located in a warehouse-style building on Eleventh Avenue. It is slated to become the new home of the Irish Arts Center, but, for the moment, it contains three enclosed structures that house the rooms of Rooms, the first -- and, to my mind, better -- of two offerings currently making up a mini-festival of works by Enda Walsh. The playwright has noticed that rooms, both strange and familiar, often have a strange power about them -- perhaps because they contain auras of the past or the accumulated psychic energy of former inhabitants. Whatever the reason, one can sometimes enter them and somehow instinctively feel the vibrations of emotions that were discharged long ago.

To prove the point, an entire floor of Cybert Tire has been taken up with the three structures, each an interior meticulously designed by Paul Fahy. On arrival, you are put into a small group -- mine included two others besides myself -- and enter each room in succession. You can sit wherever you want, or you can look around, handling props. Within a minute, the lights dim and a recorded monologue, lasting fifteen or twenty minutes, is played over the sound system. The effect is weirdly intimate, creepily insinuating, and oddly seductive -- in short, a haunting.

I first entered Room 303, a faded, down-market hotel room, where one hears the voice of Niall Buggy impersonating a man of a certain age who is apparently nearing the end. His contemplation has a notably bitter tang: "Surprisingly," he says, "it was never my intention to play out my last days being stared at by a fat blue bottle in a shitty hotel room. Dreams of dying were always dreams of friends or strangers I had talked to, people I had given the good word to in return for hot beverages and biscuits. I would be dying on a bed and these people would surround that bed and kind words would float down on me and ease me into my death and towards my God." The room is eventually plunged into darkness, leaving us alone with the cascades of words tumbling out of the speaker's mouth -- - expressing his disgust that the end of life can be so squalid.

Next came Kitchen, a long, narrow, well-furnished space, with all the expected appliances and cabinets. Eileen Walsh voices the sinister words of a housewife whose relationship with her husband has devolved into a state of simmering, poisonous mutual rage. In her account, he tells her that "some women brighten a room" but she is "like a cloud, dark, obviously, and full of rain without the expression of rain. You're like a cancer cloud." It continues in this vein, interrupted by a series of large thuds that could mean many things, none of them benevolent. Walsh's delivery is, if possible, more driven than Buggy's, filled to a disturbing degree with implied violence. The final destination of my visit was A Girl's Bedroom, which, filled with toys and stuffed animals, is a cluttered, comfortable space. The words are anything but: The actress Charlie Murphy speaks as a woman recalling how, at the age of six, she lay in her bed at night, "the room filling with stories of unrequited love, obviously -- with neglect, definitely -- and deceit," and her parents downstairs, "two worlds separated by blood and walls." Driven by a mixture of anxiety and, perhaps, fury, she flees the house, wandering through a park and down to a beach where she watches the sun rise. For a moment, at least, there is peace: "The memory of them, of their faces, of the bedroom, for now, it dulls."

Murphy, like her costars, delivers the text as if her life depended on it; the intensity of each reading is such that, more than once, I was reminded of Not I or Play, Samuel Beckett works in which the characters speak with the unnatural power of one possessed. Walsh, who also directed, has created an experience that inexorably draws you in and shakes you to the core. The people who once inhabited these rooms may have vanished, but their souls have stayed behind, and are raging far into the night.

Considerably more elaborate, and much less interesting, is Arlington, which, compared to Rooms, is a fairly straightforward drama, if an enigmatic one. The curtains part to reveal a large, sterile room, furnished only with a potted plant, three blue plastic chairs, an apparently empty fish tank (which bubbles up from time to time), a bench, a coatrack, and a radio, which, from time to time, plays scenes from a soap opera that sounds rather like The Archers, the famed BBC radio serial. There is a door and, up high, a curtained window. At first glance, one can hardly imagine what it is used for.

The room is inhabited by Isla, a young woman who, apparently, is being kept in captivity; next door, in a tiny space crammed with what appears to be rather out-of-date computer equipment and video screens, a man keeps tabs on her and urges her to recount experiences from her past, when she lived a freer existence in the outside world. Exactly how Isla feels about this isn't entirely clear; she seems like a caged animal, yet she fulfills her duties with alacrity. As the play begins, the man who filled this role has been replaced by someone younger, and this change sets in motion the action of the play.

I'm not sure I should say much more, except to note that the play unfolds in a future in which an unspecified catastrophe has led to some kind of (I guess) totalitarian regime, involving large numbers of people being warehoused in towers. I can't say more simply because Walsh has been so parsimonious with details. This seems to be the standard methodology for playwrights -- among them, Anne Washburn, Penelope Skinner, and Wallace Shawn -- who spins such dark fantasies, and it strikes me as a little bit lazy. Walsh clearly intends to instill a sense of dread, suggesting that the play's terrible events are only a slight exaggeration of our current predicaments. I know that we don't live in the happiest of times -- that we may very well be collectively hurtling toward hell in a handbasket -- but I fear that such vaguely conceived dystopias tend to be surprisingly uninteresting. Too often, they come off as opportunistic scare shows, their horrors proving to be superfluous given the many things we have to worry about in the present day.

Arlington is never boring, however, largely because of the extraordinarily committed performances by its three-person cast. Murphy's Isla is a figure of intense concentration, often locked in rapid-fire exchanges with Hugh O'Conor as her rather hapless overseer. Later, when he appears in Isla's space, having been brutally roughed up, the effect is genuinely shocking. Oona Doherty shows up when the piece threatens to turn into a dance drama, and she executes her task with supple grace. There's something eerily spic-and-span about the main area of Jamie Vartan's set -- looking at it, you just know that it represents some ghastly institutional program -- and the contrast with the tiny, technology-filled space at stage right couldn't be more pronounced. Adam Silverman's lighting -- especially the effect of sunshine pouring through that window -- is seamless in its effect. Helen Atkinson's sound design, which includes radio broadcasts, other voices (the actors are also miked), and unexplained, but upsetting, booms, is equally accomplished. The video, by Jack Phelan -- including blurry images, filled with video snow, of the outside world -- is also effective. (Interestingly, I think that, at times, the video projector is used to light the stage.)

A lot happens in Arlington, but what it all means is never very clear. Walsh asks the audience to infer too much, and his intentions remain thoroughly cloudy. It's interesting how the more modestly scaled texts of Rooms prove to be so much more evocative. Arlington wants to make a big statement -- but what is it, exactly? -- David Barbour

(12 May 2017)

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