Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh enjoy higher profiles, but Irish playwright Enda Walsh feels much closer to the spirit of Joyce and Beckett than either of his better-known contemporaries, who generally hew fairly close to the dictates of realism. Like Joyce, Walsh delights in wordplay and allusion, and like Beckett, his plays evoke closed environments where meaning, such as it is, comes from the repetition of stories and actions. In Bedbound (not yet produced in Chicago), a father and daughter deliver a series of voluble and recriminatory monologues from a filthy bedroom. In The New Electric Ballroom (presented by A Red Orchid Theatre earlier this year), three sisters in a small Irish cottage obsessively revisit an incident from the past.
In Penelope, Walsh has found classical stand-ins for his brand of stunted and perhaps delusional souls—the suitors who wait outside Odysseus's house, drinking, bickering, needling each other, and hoping to win the hand of the warrior's famously faithful wife. The four gents who hang out in the drained swimming pool before Penelope's door day after day provide the missing link between Greek epic and reality competition shows like The Bachelorette—the latter notion reinforced by Penelope watching the four on closed-circuit television from her white-walled home above the pool.
It's an intriguing concept, and there are many wonderful interludes in Steppenwolf's production, directed by Amy Morton. But there is a tricky disconnect to the tone of the piece that doesn't feel fully resolved here, despite yeoman work by the quartet of Speedo-clad actors who each embody—sagging physiques, spray tans, and all—a separate trope of manhood.
There's the put-upon nebbish, Burns (Ian Barford), mourning the loss of his friend, Murray, who's committed suicide just the day before. There's swaggering "sensuous ninja" Quinn (Yasen Peyankov, resplendently ridiculous in a long ponytailed wig), whose machinations drove Murray to his sorry end. Quinn taunts Burns by tossing his dead friend's blue plastic beach chair over the wall of the pool, where it joins a pile representing the dozens of other suitors who have died during their long vigil. Dunne (Scott Jaeck) is an id-dominated gourmand, and Fitz (Tracy Letts, a late replacement for John Mahoney) is a donnish pill-popping scholar who totes around a copy of Homer.
When the four discover that they all had the same horrifying dream—Odysseus returns and barbecues them on the grill that has long since ceased to work—they decide that it's an omen. They must abandon their competitive urges and work together to get Penelope to marry one of them and save them all from the vengeful clutches of her warrior husband. Yes, it's an insane idea, but apparently too much time spent overindulging at the bottom of a drained pool leads to such madness. (See, for example, Edie Sedgwick in Ciao! Manhattan.)
The quartet's new collaborative approach to courtship begins in a sort of misguided poetry slam, in which Dunne's attempt to woo Penelope devolves from his ruminations upon his morning shower into observations on "water used for nothing more than filling a cistern and pulverizing a petrous turd." (Jaeck's stentorian delivery is as outsize as his belly, described by Peyankov's Quinn as a "much abused loin of pork.") Fitz begins his monologue to Penelope in a halting manner but ends up weaving a wistful meditation about love and mortality.
But despite the intricate flights of wordplay, a certain sense of lassitude overcomes the proceedings. Late in the 90-minute piece, Peyankov's Quinn delivers a breakneck dumb show of doomed lovers through history—Napoleon and Josephine, Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Jackie Kennedy. But it feels confusing and flat, and the impending mutual doom of the four doesn't reach Beckettian levels of pathos. The joke of the aging Lotharios in their too-tight banana hammocks, cavorting to Herb Alpert's "Spanish Flea," wears thin too quickly. Morton doesn't seem to have figured out how to connect the show's kitschy qualities (though Walt Spangler's blue-walled shell of a pool, topped by Penelope's Flintstones-like abode, is sheer eye candy) with its deeper philosophical aspirations.
Part of the problem is that Walsh hasn't given us a clear enough purpose for the suitors' obsession with the title character. In the original, Penelope thwarts them through a series of tricks, including weaving an endless shroud for her father-in-law, which she undoes every night. Her cleverness provides its own tantalizing hurdle for these macho men to overcome. But here, Logan Vaughn is simply a beautiful wordless presence, an idea of what the men below think they should want, rather than a challenging woman worthy of their competition. Both Penelope and Penelope lack a sense of urgency and vitality, and not even the excellent and endearing performances on brave display here by the four men in the pool can fully balance that deficit.