FOUR MEN IN SPEEDOS pace and lounge in a drained swimming pool, a smear of blood against one wall. A barbeque sits to one side, but it's broken—sausages are cooked on its grill with a blowtorch, because why not? Two floors above, a woman reclines on a divan, half-hidden behind a gauzy curtain. The four men by turns bid for her attention in ways manipulative, desperate, and earnest, but it's not clear if she's even watching—she might just be waiting patiently for her husband to return, as she's done for so many years.
Enda Walsh's Penelope is based on the story of Odysseus' wife, who legendarily stayed faithful to her husband while he was away fighting the Trojan War. It's no spoiler, then, to reveal that in Third Rail's production, things don't work out for Penelope's Speedo-clad suitors. It's not clear why, exactly, these men are stuck in this swimming pool, littered with the trappings of suburban barbeques—lawn chairs, party hats, a well-stocked bar to which the characters frequently return. All they seem to know is that they're rivals for Penelope's love, though their biggest rival, of course, is the husband who will be returning soon, probably less than pleased with the men who've been moving in on his lady. But while their desperate courtships are doomed to fail, it's worth watching how and when these four men manage to move the remote Penelope—how she parts her curtain at one man's heartfelt appeal, or eagerly leans in to watch the comic playacting of another.
Walsh's script leavens its seriousness with pitched hilarity, and it's impossible to imagine another company or another set of actors handling the material this ably. These are some of the best actors working in Portland, and the casting couldn't be more perfect: Chris Murray is nebbish and squirrelly as a young man who might actually have some decency in him; Bruce Burkhartsmeier is corrupted but resigned, even as the others refuse to take him seriously as a rival. But the show belongs to Tim True and Michael O'Connell—True's character is a squawking, boastful peacock, but True manages to give gravity and humanity to a role that in lesser hands (hell, in any other hands) could easily become a mere caricature. O'Connell, meanwhile, is charged with a comedic sequence of Monty Python-esque proportions—a rapid-fire, CliffsNotes history of romance that involves cross-dressing, silly accents, and a horse. He pulls it off brilliantly, a performance that even manages to draw some approval from the elusive Penelope. (As Penelope, Britt Harris has virtually nothing to do—she spends most of the show sitting patiently behind her curtain, visible only in profile. I hope she at least got a magazine to read or something.)
One downside to Third Rail Rep's versatile new home at the Winningstad is shorter show runs—Penelope only runs three weekends, which probably isn't enough time to let the inevitably great word of mouth on this show build. It isn't an easy show—its comedy is accessible and flawlessly executed, but the humor is punctuated with monologues that can be difficult to parse, and despite all the laughs, humanity doesn't come out looking so good. But the script's blend of humor and pathos is deftly handled in what is, above all, an admirably ambitious production—a reminder of why Third Rail deserves that reputation for presenting some of the best, most challenging work in town.