The Emperor Is Wearing a Speedo

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

I have to confess I don't know what to make of Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Usually, I'm a sucker for anyone writing from the lineage of Joyce and Beckett and there's no doubt Mr. Walsh is writing from their troubled inheritance.

You can feel it in the LA production of his play "Penelope" at Rogue Machine Theater.

Penelope, you might remember, was Ulysees ever-faithful wife. With the tale of Ulysees already well charted in Irish literature - Mr. Walsh has chosen to flip the perspective and focus on what's been happening on the homefront while the man of the house is out navigating Sirens. The setting for "Penelope" is Ulysees' drained out swimming pool - complete with blue and white Grecian tile. Remember, while it took our hero an extra 10 years to make it back from the Trojan war, a veritable army of suitors took up residence attempting to court his wife and feast on his livestock.

As the play begins, it appears most of that feasting has already happened. There are only four suitors left and they're down to their very last sausage - at least to eat. Mr. Walsh's twisted take on the courtship ritual has this quartet of competitors appearing daily at the bottom of the pool - decked out in swim trunks and bathing robes, slathering themselves with sunscreen, and waiting in folding beach chairs for either a chance to woo or be annihalated when the colossus of the house returns. It has a Beckettian sense of apocalypse - imagine "Endgame" performed by large men in Speedos.

Mr. Walsh's writing has a violent, bawdy, virility that, at its best, drives forward and gives actors something to sink their teeth into. It's easy to find yourself engrossed in this brutal examination of manhood: there are after all blood stains on the walls of this swimming pool. And, written in 2010 in the wake of the European debt crisis, it's easy to imagine, metaphorically, these aren't the only four Irishmen battling it out at the bottom of the pool.

For all this, I'm a huge fan of Enda Walsh's writing but . . . there's more. The sharp repartee gives way to ponderous monologues and here's where I get confused. On one hand: they're beautifully written, poetic, philosophical. While in no way derivative of Beckett or Joyce, if like me, you're a fan of their writing they'll feel familiar. They seem to sprout out of the scenes as deeper contemplations of competition, the bond between a mother and son, the nature of love - and line by line I'm completely with them. But once they're over, my impulse is to say - 'Wait. What? . . . what did that have to do with the scene? Or love, for that matter?"

It's what leaves me wondering if I get what Mr. Walsh is going after - and this isn't the first of his plays that has me scratching my head. But maybe it's just me.

If amidst our summer heat, you're looking for a chance to watch someone else sweat it out for a while and you're willing to go on some philosophical tangents - there's some powerful acting happening at the bottom of a pool at the Rogue Machine Theater.

"Penelope" plays through this Sunday, August 17 at Rogue Machine Theater on Pico.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission.

Banner Image: Richard Fancy, Scott Sheldon, and Ron Bottitta; Credit: John Flynn