How it’s New York: “Arlington” is part of “Enda Walsh in NYC,” joint presentations by the Irish Arts Center and St. Ann’s
Warehouse in Brooklyn
How it’s Irish: Playwright Enda Walsh is Irish, and the play takes place in a dystopian Ireland. It’s billed as “St. Ann’s Warehouse presents Landmark Productions/Galway International Arts Festival.”
I didn’t enjoy “Arlington.”
I don’t think you’re supposed to.
After seeing this dystopian drama (set in an Ireland in some future time when people are warehoused in towers and made to tell stories of their pasts until they kill themselves), I was ready to write it off.
But the play keeps coming back to me, as if I’d swallowed something that tasted bad and can’t get it out of my mouth. It’s like acid reflux.
It’s an acid reflux play.
(Similarly I loathed, loathed, loathed, Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon” when I saw it, and being a baby playwright, could justify all my reasons. Then I noticed I was still talking about it weeks later. Hmmm.)
Today, when we’ve just discovered the Syrians are hiding crematoria, Walsh’s dystopic fantasy feels like a waking nightmare. It’s not plausible, but it’s not ridiculous, either. It’s not hard to imagine a time when some people would willingly lock up the others, to keep resources for themselves.
I wasn’t truly moved, because I couldn’t buy into it. Not as it stands.
But it feels like an opiod-nightmare (I had foot surgery, OK?). It gives me the shivers.
Like the companion piece, “Rooms,” running at Cybert Tire, presented by Irish Arts Center, and just extended through Jnew 4 “Arlington” has a a claustrophobic emphasis on the closed-inness of a room. When the play opens, we see Isla (Charlie Murphy) gazing longingly out a window. She’s in a white room, with nothing in it but three plastic chairs, an empty fish tank, a plastic (I think) plant, and a ticket machine. She listens to an Irish radio soap opera that seems to take place in the country and quickly becomes weird (strange accusatory talk about a child), then runs around the room. There’s a blackout, then lights come on again. We hear seagulls.
Then we see the young man (Hugh O’Conor), in a cramped office with tall file cabinets, and a microphone. He talks to Isla through a speaker. He can see her, but not the other way around. He isn’t the “usual man” who talks to her, she says– we’ll eventually learn the usual man summoned him, then died. There’s banter, and even chemistry. She asks if he thinks she’s attractive, and he says “sort of,” which is better than “slightly.” He says feet make him queasy, so she puts on socks. Charlie Murphy’s Isla is funny, practical and engaging. She’s down to earth as she tries to help the nervous young man (O’Connor is downright jittery, humble and funny) do his job. Later when she recounts the memory of how she got to this strange waiting room, the more she tries to be strong, the more she breaks your heart.
He invites her to tell a story, to which he’ll add music. She addresses a microphone on the wall and talks about walking through woods. He accompanies her on keyboards, and video appears.
Is she The Giver?
The entire second scene (act?) of the play is a dance by another young woman (Oona Doherty) trapped in a room. It’s a
gorgeous dance, with choreography by Emma Martin, symbolizing repression, despair, and rage– but it goes on too long. We get the point; people are bored and helpless. I don’t know when in their bored helpless state they all got to take modern dance.
Throughout, Teho Teardo’s music adds atmosphere and lyricism.
In the third scene, we meet the Young Man again. He’s bloodied and bruised. A female voice which may or may not belong to the old woman seen in a still photograph on the TV screens in the control room forces him to tell stories to sleep. He’s done something to make Big Mother (maybe?) turn on him.
Now for Clever Observations.
There is only one dystopian plot. Here it is. In an oppressive world, and someone in it rebels, motivated by love. That’s the plot of George Orwell’s “1984:” Winston loves Julia. That’s the plot of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” (love of sister.) That’s the plot of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” (love of brother.) (It’s been a while since I read “Brave New World,” sorry.)
And that’s the plot of “Arlington,” which is even subtitled “A Love Story.” The Young Man and Isla connect. That connection leads to other connections of cause and effect, and leads to the Young Man doing the right thing, as he says, powerfully, in the final scene.
Abstract menace doesn’t work. Kind of like how trying to raise kids without religion so they’ll understand every religion, being vague to avoid being too specific works against the universality of a story. Counter-intuitive, but true. So “A Fiddler on the Roof” is beloved in Japan, because tradition is important in Japanese culture, for example. We’re left wondering what the Hell is going on for far too long.
Are there aliens? Is it post-nuclear war?
At one point, with a big melange of faces projected against the back wall, the female voice fills us in a bit. It’s alienating but not in a good way, i.e., it doesn’t actually support a theme of alienation. It just annoys the audience.
While the audience don’t need to know everything right off the bat, they do need to know the ground rules (see, for example, my response to “The Present,” where I couldn’t tell in a long first scene whether a couple were married, siblings, lovers, what. It only got worse as more people showed up and I didn’t understand the connections.)
We also need to feel that the playwright has all the ground rules down, and I didn’t.
Weird isn’t always poetic. Walsh gets compared to Beckett a lot, but I don’t see it. There is some lovely language, but while Beckett is often abstracted, he’s also very funny. When he’s not, he’s deeply lyrical, as in “Not I.” Walsh’s humor consists of some rather random exchanges, as when Isla and the Young Man discuss their mutual love of biscuits, or inserting a pop song in to the action. That’s become a tic. Another device he uses constantly is to have characters relive and tell stories: they do it in “The Walworth Farce,” “Penelope,” even “The Last Hotel.” Certainly, the storytelling is justified here, because the control room people seem to want it– but why? It doesn’t seem to be “The Giver” kind of thing. And making people relive the past until they go insane seems remarkably inefficient as a means of crowd control.
There are weird bits that seem there just to be weird: a monitor catches fire. Clothes fall from the ceiling. Why? Who knows. Which leads to…
Plot matters. How much you enjoy “Rooms” and “Arlington” depends partly on your tolerance for museum fatigue and elusive art. The comparison to art installment for them both is apt. My tolerance for these is low. In “Arlington” anything can happen next, so there was nothing I was waiting to see happen (as Oskar Eustis taught me– now the artistic director of the Public, but he taught me this when he was dramaturg at Eureka Theatre: will Hamlet kill the king? will Romeo and Juliet escape together?). That question is alive and well in “1984” and “The Hunger Games.” Will Godot arrive?
“Arlington” is 80 minutes of situation. I have adored Walsh’s “Penelope” and “The Last Hotel,” but found “Lazarus,” to which Walsh wrote the book, with music by David Bowie, and an absolutely gorgeous look with moving lights and projections, so forgettable that I literally forgot I saw it. Because the plot was elusive when there at all. I suppose one could say in “Arlington,” “Will Isla escape?” but there’s not much suspense to it. It all just feels brutal.
I didn’t buy into this world.
But I can’t quite leave it behind.
(p.s. if you’re wondering why it’s called “Arlington,” wonder away. It’s not explained.)