In Enda Walsh's delicious, modern riff on one strand of Homer's "Odyssey," now in its Chicago premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre under the stellar direction of Amy Morton, these four men are the die-hard fans of Penelope, whose 20-year wait for her hubby Odysseus to return from war has attracted more than 100 dudes interested in testing her capacity for patience.
Walsh (who also adapted the sublime "Once" on Broadway, which you can also read about in Tuesday's Tribune) is a formidable young Irish playwright who tends to focus on characters who rely on deep delusions to keep themselves alive. His work does not build in a traditional narrative fashion, preferring a more prismatic build that can, temporarily, confound an audience. So be warned that, despite the implications of the marketing, this is no escapist holiday farce. Dense, complicated and darkly droll, "Penelope" is a quirky Beckettian drama that is at once a satire on the pathetic vanity of middle-aged men and, paradoxically, an affirmation that if you are not pursuing some infatuation of the heart then you're not really living at all.
Perhaps, dear reader, you don't look good in your Speedos, or their gender-appropriate equivalent, anymore either. But if you think you still do, Walsh seems to be arguing, you're better than if you never wear them again. In such defeat lies death. In delusion lies life. And what is the love of the same gorgeous woman whom everyone else loves but a most existentially delicious delusion? Ay, there's the rub.
Frankly, watching the meaty Steppenwolf gentleman run up against each other on Sunday night's opening, I was also put in mind of the currently fractious European Union, battling it out in a drained economic pool for a goal of unification perhaps as unattainable as Penelope. Maybe it was the Greek setting — all classical works I see today make me think of that nation's economic crisis. Or maybe it was the famous fondness of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi for both Speedos and beautiful women. You might think of something else entirely. Walsh's play is one of those verbose, word-drunk, overstuffed shows, confounding as it can be, that fills your brain with so many ideas you can't think of much else thereafter.
Even though this production was hit with a last-minute cast change (John Mahoney was replaced by Letts), the lovers' quartet feels like it has a long history on the road. Jaeck lets it all hang out in so many moving ways; Peyankov, who spends some quality time in drag, has much fun with the contrast between his character's creative desperation and his own sober persona; Barford bides his time and then kicks in hard when it really matters. And Letts, blinking in the Greek sunlight like a Midwest nobody blinded by Aegean headlights, seems to have the most to lose and the most to gain. He certainly doesn't feel like a put-in actor, except to the extent that describes us all.
Morton obviously managed to create a safe world for all this preening, and yet also one that lays it all bare.
Penelope — here a wordless character, played by the glamorous yet ambivalent Logan Vaughn — is a wild card of "The Odyssey," of course. To some, she's always been the Homeric poster child of marital fidelity. To others, she likes flirting with those suitors just a bit too much to play that moralistic role in mythical history.
Morton's production, which benefits greatly from an extravagant and typically apocalyptic setting from Walt Spangler, certainly plays with the idea that Penelope is no angel — except, that is, for the indisputable fact that she is keeping all these loving losers alive and kicking.
When: Through Feb. 5
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org