Few contemporary playwrights embrace the “one for me, one for them” trajectory as starkly as Enda Walsh. The prolific Irish writer/director alternates between loony, incisive chamber psychodramas (Misterman, Ballyturk) and loony, broad crowd-pleasers (Once, Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Lazarus) with a panache that marks him as a distinctly 21st-century artist, hard to pin down and adept at reinvention. His latest play, Arlington, sits firmly in the former camp, stretching his trademark idiosyncratic investigation of the effects of isolation on wild, creative minds toward exciting new abstractions.
Arlington shares so many conceptual and visual ideas with Walsh’s 2014 Ballyturk (produced throughout Ireland and at London’s National Theatre, but yet to cross the Atlantic) that it almost feels like a pseudo-sequel. The two plays occupy similar existential territory; each involves people forcibly held in a large room for mysterious reasons. Whereas 1 and 2, as Ballyturk’s detainees are cryptically named, at least have each other for company, Arlington leaves protagonist Isla (Charlie Murphy) unto herself in a large, sterile, mostly empty room, where she narrates her dreams and memories into a microphone. Her handler on the other side of the wall, the Young Man (Hugh O’Conor), turns her stories into serene videos with musical accompaniment while she speaks.
We never learn the purpose for this bizarre scenario, but Isla soon realizes that her situation is the rule rather than the exception. She has been in that room since the age of four, when she was imprisoned with her family. Over the years, they disappeared one by one along with the furniture and any memory of her life outside. As the play opens, the curtain has fallen from Isla’s window, and she’s looked out to see tower after tower full of thousands more in her situation, many of whom have taken to jumping from their own windows in desperation. The Young Man begins to take pity on Isla.
Walsh’s is a theater of opposites; as in Ballyturk and Misterman (seen at St. Ann’s in 2011), the imposing stillness of the spacious room is mitigated by a frenzy of movement; the empty air is filled with rat-a-tat dialogue. Cheery pop songs, like the Ramones’ cover of Phil Spector’s 1964 Ronettes hit “Baby, I Love You,” the Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1,” and ’60s novelty number “Sukiyaki” are counterposed against Italian composer Teho Teardo’s portentous slashing double bass to create a menacing, not-quite-sci-fi dystopia in which stories have become commodities worth enslaving people for.
Perhaps the best Walsh touchstone for the play isn’t a play at all, but his screenplay with Steve McQueen for 2008’s Hunger, which dramatized IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike; Sands’ righteous anger against injustice animates Arlington as well. The play is no less defeatist than Walsh’s previous works, but for the first time there is a glimmer of resistance, as the Young Man takes steps to help Isla, knowing the consequences might be fatal.
The play’s middle section forgoes language altogether to embody this defiant rage, as a new occupant (or perhaps a captive in a different room or tower: it’s not clear) portrayed by Oona Doherty dances an Emma Martin–choreographed Kevin Bacon-in-Footloose rage ballet, all furious jabs and Tourette’s tics for, as the script says with characteristic Walsh understatement, “her final 20 minutes.”
Arlington is the type of play that invites a number of interpretations, all of which are right, and few of which can be supported with evidence from the stage. Whether that sounds like heaven or makes you want to jump out of a high window yourself, there’s no denying the play’s morbid charm. Charlie Murphy’s Isla is instantly endearing, a testy survivor whose arrested development alternately manifests as manipulative flirting and chronic optimism. O’Conor, as baby-faced at 42 as he was when he played the ingenuous priest in the 2000 Juliette Binoche–Johnny Depp bauble Chocolat, is a heartbreaking deer in the headlights, doing his best to remain human in a dehumanized wasteland.
Enda Walsh’s Arlington runs through March 28 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (45 Water St., Brooklyn). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (718) 254-8779 or visit stannswarehouse.org.