Something magical happens 30 minutes into Penelope. It begins when Quinn, a middle-aged man, unflatteringly clad in a speedo, babbles on with the preening self-promotion characteristic of him and his four equally unpromising buddies.
We’ve heard it before, we think – but this time, Quinn’s speech wanders into the darker world of war and its aftermath. You see, today, Penelope’s husband will return, leaving these four surviving men – whose futures are tied to her – very much on terra infirma.
This shift in tone takes place so subtly – both in playwright Enda Walsh’s gorgeously rich text, and in actor Jared Michael Delaney’s masterfully contained performance – that we hardly notice it. But it makes all the difference.
Till then, Penelope feels like a nightmarish dating comedy – I imagined audience members rushing home en masse to cancel their match.com subscriptions. Not that it isn’t funny – it is, very much so – but it’s bleak. Just consider the setting, a decaying empty swimming pool – we expect Dexter to show up, looking for a body. (Why yes, that is blood spatter on the algae-flecked wall.)
Soon, though, the full resonance of Penelope comes thrillingly into focus. This is both a comedy of modern male vanity, and a meditation on human frailty and cruelty. It’s a play about the hazards of courtship – and the horrors of the Trojan War.
Perhaps most of all, it’s a celebration of language, which rises to lofty poetic heights, and dips to shameless but hilarious scatological depths. At his considerable best, Walsh seems today’s heir to the legacy of Samuel Beckett.
It’s Beckett you may think of when you watch Leonard Haas, playing Fitz, another suitor. There’s a bit of surface courtliness to Fitz that suggests a faded Noel Coward character – but Haas unforgettably anchors the character with a heartbreaking sense of emptiness. Struggling for words in a long passage that ultimately becomes the most moving sequence in the play, Haas is both Everyman, and nobody.
Penelope is a tour de force for actors (in addition to those mentioned, the excellent cast includes John Morrison and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, along with Adair Arciero as the comely Penelope), but also for a director – it’s emotionally complex, and full of difficult stage business. Tom Reing has handled it beautifully, which is all the more impressive, since the last-minute change of venue – to the Prince – can’t have been easy. But you’d never know it.
Happily, Inis Nua move next season to a brand new theatre space! Let’s wish them luck – “May the road rise to meet them,” as the proverb goes. The company certainly rises to new heights here.
Through April 26, Inis Nua at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., www.inisnuatheatre.org