Review: A Fantasy Town Builds a Wall Against Time in ‘Ballyturk’

Review: A Fantasy Town Builds a Wall Against Time in ‘Ballyturk’

What sounds like an intricate radio drama from the world beyond (Helen Atkinson is the sound designer) occasionally penetrates their activities, as do shards of crazy pop hits and tidal waves of somber, romantic music (by Teho Teardo). But One and Two are so removed from what we think of as reality, that when a buzzing housefly invades their precincts, One doesn’t have a clue as to what it is.

People familiar with other work by Mr. Walsh, whose early “Disco Pigs” opened recently in a revival at the Irish Repertory Theater, may sense that they’ve been here before. A dramatist of ferociously specific imagination, Mr. Walsh revels in placing bewildered but feisty characters in hermetically sealed environments, creating what might be described as ontological equivalents of the locked room mystery.

His “The Walworth Farce,” in which an Irish family of men repeatedly acts out the same play in a crumbling London flat, is the most obvious forebear of “Ballyturk.” Seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2008, “Walworth” was a wild ride of a play, for sure, with its author’s distinctive cocktail (Molotov) of madcap stagecraft and verbal fireworks.


From left, Olwen Fouéré, Mr. Murfi and Mr. Murphy.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But “Walworth” was — to use a metaphor Mr. Walsh’s agoraphobic characters would no doubt recoil from — a walk in the park compared to “Ballyturk,” which was first staged in Galway, Ireland, in 2014. The head-scratching ghost of Samuel Beckett, and the more sinister spirit of Harold Pinter, haunt “Ballyturk,” which traffics unapologetically in literature’s biggest theme.

I mean the point or pointlessness of life in the face of death, and how we avoid and embrace our ultimate ends. And, particularly, how people block the view of mortality with small talk and its physical equivalents. As Two observes toward the play’s conclusion, all he and One have been doing with their elaborate fantasies of their fantasy village has been “filling a room with words.”

By that time, One and Two have been forced into a reckoning of sorts by the arrival of a suave stranger in a trench coat. Call her Three; the script does. Embodied with the silken swagger of a film noir villain by Olwen Fouéré, Three makes one hell of an entrance.

She also talks like an infernal angel, shifting to song (the nightclub standard “Time After Time,” with good reason) when a microphone drops from the skies. What she has to say — about giving “life purpose by reaching its edge” — is pure poetry and oh-so alarming to a pair of chaps who have been doing their best to sustain their daily rituals of make-believe.

“Ballyturk” is so verbally dense that it’s possible to be hypnotized, if not numbed, by some of its lush spoken arias. Even at 90 minutes, it would be better shorter.

Fortunately, Mr. Walsh’s plays by no means live exclusively by the words he so adores and reviles. As a director, he knows how to weave a web of images that defy language. And he infuses them with a kinetic charge that equally brings to mind the mayhem of Mack Sennett and the shadows of Ingmar Bergman. (The crucial lighting is by Adam Silverman.)

For a spirited summing up of the frantic emptiness of our daily routines, it’s hard to match the sight of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Murfi (even the actors’ names match the vaudevillian sensibility) going through the morning motions of getting dressed, having breakfast, cleaning up and exercising. This is all conducted at a fast-forward tempo with the 1982 ABC pop hit “The Look of Love,” and it is pure, moronic bliss.

It’s hard to imagine a successful version of “Ballyturk” without Mr. Walsh presiding, obsessively, as director. As it is, the line between his characters marking time and a writer filling space can feel irritatingly thin.

But no matter your immediate response to “Ballyturk,” it is likely to take up residence in your thoughts after you’ve seen it. I’ve been finding it hard to banish that first, icy image of Three, seen as if at the end of an airless and light-stripped tunnel. For all the teetering towers of language that the boys of “Ballyturk” build for themselves, the last word here, as it is in life, is beyond words.

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