“Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.”
—Philip Larkin, “Dockery and Son”
It’s generally agreed that life is meaningless and unfulfilling then ends too soon. And a corollary: love is hell. What would the history of world literature look like if it didn’t have such uplifting sentiments to draw upon? Rom coms and love songs, and not even the best ones at that. Enda Walsh’s existential thought-play PENELOPE, now receiving its Philadelphia premiere by Inis Nua Theatre Company, treads a well-worn path, but it does so with intelligence and poetry.
Four Irishmen hang out every day in an empty swimming pool (set: Meghan Jones) on a Greek island. (Let’s assume they’re Irishmen; they’re all given Irish accents in this production. It works.) There’s Fitz (Leonard Haas), a nervous and befuddled older man who spends his days reading on a pool lounger. Dunne (John Morrison), an out-of-shape blowhard kitted out in a silk dressing gown, cravat, and flip flops (pool wear costumes by Maggie Baker). Quinn (Jared Michael Delaney), the Rockabilly-styled slickster who fancies himself leader of the group. And Burns (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen), a painfully sunburned young dweeb, the butt of the group’s jokes.
The quartet are all that remains of a hundred suitors trying to win the heart of a beautiful woman, Penelope (Adair Arciero), while her husband Odysseus was off fighting a war. (Yes: The Odyssey.) Disturbed by a shared dream of their demise at the hands of the vengeful demi-god Odysseus, the four launch one last attempt to woo Penelope.
Walsh gives each man lengthy speeches rich in insightful musings on friendship (“there to be used”), love (“a weapon”), and the passage of time (“it seems like only yesterday it was yesterday”). Some of the deliveries are constrained by director Tom Reing’s at times static blocking, but each actor has his turn to captivate both Penelope and the audience, and each succeeds.
The best lines are reserved for the laconic Burns (“people carry around little pedestals of differing sizes and half-talk to each other and lie to themselves and other that they are part of a community”). Stanton-Ameison seizes this opportunity with a resounding coda that summarizes the plays themes: Despite its threats, love is saved. And then we all go up in flames. PENELOPE is a funny play, but it’s not a feel-good romp. [Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street] April 8-22, 2015; inisnuatheatre.org.