In "The Walworth Farce" and "The New Electric Ballroom," the inventive Irish playwright Enda Walsh introduced us to characters who are prisoners of private family myths.
In "Penelope," a bold reimagining of a slice of Homer now having its Los Angeles premiere at Rogue Machine, he gives us four guys who are trapped inside a legend that just so happens to be one of the foundational tales of Western culture.
Set inside a drained swimming pool, this brazenly unorthodox drama revolves around the competitive relationships of the last of Penelope's four remaining suitors — the survivors, if you will, of the game she's been playing since her husband, Odysseus, left for war and she's been besieged by those vying to fill his place in her bed.
Naturally, as this is a play by a writer as enthralled by words as Walsh, the main occupation of these gentlemen (played by Scott Sheldon, Brian Letscher, Ron Bottitta and Richard Fancy) is talking. Each desires to be singled out for special favor by Penelope (Holly Fulger), who listens in on a security camera to their courtship sales pitches and occasionally emerges on a balcony when one of them says something that genuinely touches her.
Taking his cues more from Samuel Beckett than from James Joyce (who scored an intimidating success with his own reworking of "The Odyssey"), Walsh tracks the daily rituals through which these waiting suitors pass the time.
A shared prophetic dream suggesting that Odysseus will soon be returning and on a rampage of revenge gives the drama a degree of urgency, though there's a dilatory quality to the conversational gambits. These fellows would rather idly gab than abandon this dangerous waiting game and, well, get a life.
The plot climaxes in horrific bloodshed, a lacerating irony for characters forever idealizing their romantic quest. The play's meaning at times gets lost in a welter of words, but the general shape of the action is clear enough.
The staging by Rogue Machine's captain, John Perrin Flynn, is vivid and (notwithstanding the wobbliness of faint Irish accents) anchored in moment-to-moment realism. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set makes this improbable setting, complete with a barbecue and drinks table, seem perfectly plausible.
The male cast is made up of actors of various ages, body sizes and even hairiness — physical facts that are front and center here. Flynn, perhaps balancing his playwright's over-reliance on language, returns us to the flesh.
This more concrete approach, however, causes the actors to occasionally lose sight of the play's verbal rhythms. The production can stall when all that's advancing the drama is the push of a monologue (even one as magnificently tender as the one spoken by Fancy's character).
The audacious intrigue of "Penelope," however, keeps luring us forward, as does the unshakable commitment of Flynn's company.
Where: Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 10.
Contact: (855) 585-5185 ; http://www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes