With his new play “Arlington,” playwright and director Enda Walsh presents an unusual love story set against a future dystopian society, which might shock New York theatergoers who know Walsh only as the Tony-winning book writer for the charming Broadway musical “Once.” It will be less shocking to those who attended “Lazarus,” Walsh’s collaboration with David Bowie at the New York Theater Workshop in 2015, with which it shares a general theatrical approach. “Arlington” invests more attention on sensory stimulation than clarity or coherence.
Isla (played by Charlie Murphy) is in a waiting room, complete with the number being served (3097.) It is sterile, white, un-softened by the fish tank and large Swiss Cheese Plant common to doctor’s offices the world over. But this waiting room also has surveillance cameras. Isla is being monitored. A young man (Hugh O’Conor) is doing the monitoring in an adjoining room cluttered with filing cabinets and computer screens.
The (never named) young man is new, replacing an older man who, we eventually learn, summoned him and then dropped dead.
We sense a connection between Isla and the young man from the get-go. Walsh’s gift for dialogue shines through in what could almost pass as a conventionally charming scene of boy meets girl, as he speaks to her over a microphone, and she talks into the surveillance equipment in her room.
Isla: Are you handsome?
Young Man: Not really no.
Isla: You’re not just saying that?
Young Man: Well in a certain light I can be – in a very darkish light.
Then she asks him whether he thinks she’s attractive and urges him to be honest.
Young Man: Sort of.
Isla: I think that’s a bit too honest.
Young Man: Sort of attractive is better than a bit attractive….It’s also a little better than slightly attractive.
The conventional ends here, however. We are given enough information to piece together a vague understanding of the unsettling world they inhabit. Isla has lived in this “waiting room” since the age of four, which is in a tower, one of many towers that long ago replaced the village or city – or country? – in which they were built. The prisoners – for that’s what they seem to be – spend their days telling stories to themselves of a better past, or dreams of a better future.
The drama, such as it is, is interrupted by a 20-minute dance by Oona Doherty, to Emma Martin’s choreography and Teho Teardo’s music, that evokes the individual prison that the world has become, and the fate of the prisoners.
Unlike “1984,” with which Walsh’s work can be compared, “Arlington” ends more happily than it begins – although it’s uncertain whether we can trust the ultimate scene as happening for real, or just an imagined story. In either case, the path to get there is one that resembles no conventional love story, which is in some ways refreshing (admittedly not the best adjective to use in conjunction with such a bleak universe.)
For those theatergoers with a taste for avant-garde, multimedia performance art, “Arlington” is well done. The two actors and the dancer are appealing and credible. The rock score is fast and furious. The design offers a near-constant barrage of in-your-face lighting changes, sound effects and projections. There is even a companion art installation entitled Rooms that fills out information about the world that Walsh has created. That installation, with a separate admission charge, is at the future home of the Irish Arts Center, on 11th Avenue in Manhattan, while “Arlington” is at St. Ann’s Warehouse on Water Street in Brooklyn. It’s too bad they couldn’t be in the same place.
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Written and directed by Enda Walsh
Choreographed by Emma Martin
Set and Costume Designer Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer Adam Silverman
Sound Designer Helen Atkinson
Composer Teho Teardo
Video Designer Jack Phelan
Isla Charlie Murphy
Young Man Hugh O’Conor
Young Woman Oona Doherty
Featuring the voices of Olwen Fouéré, Helen Norton and Stephen Rea
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Arlington” is scheduled to run through May 28, 2017.