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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

The world that Irish playwright Enda Walsh creates isn't ours, exactly. It's a world of dreams. People don't have conversations; they have panicked, avalanching monologues. Places aren't locations; they're externalized embodiments of emotions. His latest movement-play, Arlington, has a dream's drifting illogic and return to archetypes. It also has a dream's subject: the dreamer's self-regard.

While there is frequently beauty in Walsh's works, there's also self-indulgence. In Misterman, Penelope and now in Arlington, Walsh returns to the same concern again and again: the transformative power of storytelling. A theater maker writing obsessively about narrative? Walsh is looking in the mirror, and he can't tear himself away. When he directs, as he does here, we're fully in an environment of his devising, which has only one criterion: what's coolest. There's too little imaginative discipline, so the pieces don't work as systems, and their effects don’t accumulate. Instead we're in the land of jukebox experimentalism: If Walsh needs to evoke a certain feeling, he dials up a cover of “Baby, I Love You”; for the next feeling, there's another song.

In a familiar-seeming authoritarian state, Isla (Charlie Murphy) paces in a stark white waiting room. There's nothing in it, or rather a precisely curated collection of somethings that register as “nothing”: a row of three plastic chairs, an empty fish tank, closed-circuit cameras. To the left, we can see into the dark, cluttered surveillance office. Isla's image shows up on the stacks of televisions, one of which bursts abruptly into flame. Taken in images, Arlington is quite beautiful. Designer Jamie Vartan's set seems blank, but its blankness is the white of a gallery wall. Projections judder on it (Jack Phelan did the extraordinary video work) and bright colors, like Isla's marigold sweater, gleam against it like berries on snow.

Isla has been waiting nearly her whole life in this room—which is high in a tower—and so, it turns out, has much of the rest of the population. (The play starts the morning after Isla's curtain falls from her window; she can now see other prisoners jumping to their deaths from other towers.) She strikes up a conversation with her nervous new observer (Hugh O'Conor), who's there to record her stories, which are fantasies about the outside. In the piece's second section, the dancer Oona Doherty explodes through a street-inflected solo by choreographer Emma Martin; then the short play concludes with a scene of imprisonment and logorrheic confession.

Beckett and Sartre are clearly influences here, but Walsh hasn't got their bite. He's a sentimentalist, and a cheeseball one. What if No Exit were a rom-com, you ask? Arlington dares to answer. A totalitarian hell/limbo isn't so bad when you can remain as sleek and open to love as Isla does! “I think it's possible that if you stay from this moment on—I'll probably be fairly happy,” she tells the man, who will find purpose and “all heartache disappearing” in his time with her. So while the production does point to themes that invite deep engagement (such as the incarceration-obsessed state, the omnipresence of torture and yes, the power of storytelling), the show winds up being a collection of surfaces. It looks like something haunting, but it won't haunt you when it's gone.

St. Ann's Warehouse (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Enda Walsh. With Charlie Murphy, Hugh O'Conor, Oona Doherty. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission. Through May 28.

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