Over the course of the past three years, New York theatergoers have gotten well-acquainted with the darkly comic and surreal sensibilities of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who first caught our eye with his memorable St. Ann's Warehouse debut The Walworth Farce, a deliriously farcical send-up of domestic dysfunction. Last year St. Ann's presented his equally haunting play The New Electric Ballroom, about three sisters channeling their traumatic childhood memories into an obsessive, theatrical reenactment that's probably not all that therapeutic.

In Walsh's latest, Penelope, the playwright continues in the same idiosyncratic, ritualistic vein. Set in a drained swimming pool, the story concerns four desperate dudes in unflattering swimsuits and their futile attempt to woo the titular lonely housewife, who blandly looks down on them from her manor without saying a word. The story's inspired by the conclusion of Homer's The Odyssey, but feels completely contemporary, and the four competitive losers down in the pool are played with febrile abandon by the brilliant ensemble. Like Walsh's previous two St. Ann's productions, this one's a little bit creepy, a little bit disorienting, and very funny—except when it's deadly serious.

Why do you think the creative collaboration you have to St. Ann's Warehouse is so fruitful? I don't know, particularly because I don't really know anything about that New York theater or American theater really. But we certainly really like playing that type of space and of course this is the sort of show that is not going to be liked by everyone, so it suits an audience who will take a risk who will go and try it out. It's our third time there but we appreciate this sort of audience and also we find the American audience is quite physical and vocal and loud and engaged and afterwards we have various Q&As with them and they seem to be serious about the work, wanting to know why this work is happening and all that type of thing, much more than any other place we've played in the world, I must say. They're really super engaged, so that's always a better experience than actually just finishing the play and then arriving out and there's just fucking no one there [for the Q&A] and you don't know where it's going, falling into the ether. We'll go back as long as they'll have us.

Did you have a chance to see any other theater in New York while you were here? No, because I was with my five year-old daughter so I was busy either babysitting her or just trying to get food into her before she fell asleep.

How would you describe Penelope? It's a riff off The Odyssey and particularly the suitors who are trying to win Penelope's love. Odysseus, her husband is coming back, and they know that they are going to die, so they are trying to work together to win her and they can't do that. Besides that, I think it's a piece about men who are... Well, for me, it's about death. It's about that moment when you know you are going to die. I come back to the death of my father years ago. I watched him work all his life and be a nine to fiver and sort of have a business and a big shop and you look at a life like that of someone you know really really well, and they're reaching the end of their life and facing their death, and you hope that you have the time and the space to actually balance the books and you can actually look yourself in the mirror and go, "Okay this is how I've lived. Is that alright? Do I want to live that way? Was that a particularly good way for me to have lived?"

And I think that is sort of the essence of the play. There's an anxiety and a depression that runs through it—I mean this is all a nightmare to any fucking producer trying to sell the fucking play but that's the way it is. It's sort of fueled by anxiety and that sort of lonesomeness, but this play is something oddly sort of optimistic, although it's a sort of an optimism fueled on the death of someone, because these guys sort of have to kill this guy to build something purposeful, in their eyes, something true.

And there's a lot of humor that comes out of the way this death is confronted. Yeah, yeah and you'd hope that you could say that humor's a human thing but I'm an Irishman. I know it's particularly sort of Irish. Irish have always had a healthy view about death. The funeral is one of the greatest occasions in an Irish person's life. There are wonderful events, weirdly, very very optimistic, really wild and you sort of celebrate a life lived and all that other thing but I can see in this light sort of a humor, dark and surreal and posturing. That's true of the Irish person. I was saying to someone, because I would say, that objectively, that a lot of the time that a bunch of them say, "Jesus it looks like the depiction of a good night out in Ireland." It's guys grouped around uttering absolute banalities with nothing going anywhere. Then when more drinks are taken the big stuff happens and it abstracts into existentialism, which I think is like the real... You know, at 2 o'clock in the morning in an Irish pub when you're hammered and you're listening to some guy bearing his soul, it's very, very funny, very sort of touching and you think, "God you've waited the whole day just to speak some sort of truth." And that's something I can relate to in the play, I must say.

And then occasionally a beautiful woman appears and she becomes the object of attention. Completely. She comes in with the tide, it seems. It gives some sort of purpose and direction to them, with this notion of the prize. Listen, the whole conceit is Homer's and not mine, but I recognized something in it that I felt was really really funny and lonesome. It's a great conceit. It's a surprising play to me.

In what way? I never particularly know how a play is going to work but particularly with this one, there's no sense of future in this play, from an audience's point of view. You don't know where it's going. You've got a sort of sense that it's not going to turn out right but in the second, it feels very directionless and I've never actually written like that. So it's a surprise for me. It feel like a sort of teetering on collapsing. That's something that I know probably we wanted to get but when I was watching it there at St. Ann's the other night I was going, "Fuck, this isn't going anywhere." I feel very dangerous in that respect; it's literally fueled by this anxiety which I suppose is how I unfortunately tend to live my life but I can see it very clearly in this piece. It just sort of plows along towards what the ending is, but tries to find something along the way, grapples with something or other.

In the three plays that I've seen at St. Ann's, there seems to be at least one common element, which is the characters have this sort of obsessive ritual. It seems there's always this ritualistic thing that they're doing and it's a cause of anxiety and a way for them to release anxiety maybe. Where does that come from for you? It comes from my own sort of relationship with getting up in the day and living the day and getting on and having dinner at a particular time and lunch at a particular time and watching an hour of television, and then reading for another hour and going to bed at a particular time, and then getting up and doing it again. It's all what we all do everyday, and in my plays I try to get into the minutiae of the details that we sometimes take for granted, but I find all of that repetition of living a life really exhilarating and just ridiculously depressing in equal amounts, between "Oh great, I get to live another day," and "Oh, I really can't be fucking bothered." And that's why in those three plays all the characters are married to a particular ritual they're trying to reinvent, to break this and make something anew. I don't plan for the plays to be like that, but I am attracted to people and characters who have to live like that. And at some point you get to talk about yourself.

I loved so many things about it, and one thing that comes to mind is the opening scene, how there's nothing spoken for a while. How much of that is in the writing, and how much of that opening came from actual rehearsal and the actors contributing? It's all line-by-line in the writing of; I don't say that out of any sort of arrogance, but I tend to open a play very quietly anyway. I need it to be very, very quiet because I actually don't know what the hell is going to happen. So the guy looking at the sausage on the cold barbecue, the concept of it is quite funny. But there's another part of me that's excited because I don't know what's going to happen next. And you bring two other guys into the space and they're slightly older, and one of them's got a book and the other heads straight to the cocktail thing, and it's like, okay, it's going to be pieced together into a big joke, and this person does this and this and this, and by the end of it you know what their characters are. But that reveals as much to me as a writer; it reveals to the audience but it reveals to me at the same time, and the quiet aspect of it helps me get into what the play might be, and tonally how the play is going to be. Herb Alpert came really really quickly as some sort of soundtrack for the piece, and because it's such fantastical music to go mad to. I think we're in quite an insane place here, and I love the wonderful campiness and Herb Alpert just fucking cracks me up. So that's a really good reference for the piece.

Some of the actors you've worked with I've seen in New York in previous productions. Do you write with these people in mind, and how much of their talent and persona gets in your head when you're writing? Well, this was the first time I've written particularly for those four male actors. I know them all really well, and so when I wrote it, I wrote with their faces in front of me. I know their voices really well; I know them as people, and I suppose there's bits of them in there, sort of amplified, and I knew that they would really respond to my take on them, that they'd relate to that in a way.

I'm sure other actors could play the roles, but having seen it as an audience member I can't imagine anyone else doing it. They bring so much to it, and it seems so right. Yeah, and I was particularly happy with Niall Buggy, who played Fitz, the older guy. He's someone that I know the newest of the other three, and I was so happy, he loved this, he sort of gets it. And the other three, well, playwrights want to engage with people and the first port of call for playwrights is to the actor. So if you can engage with them, have a conversation with them, that might be on the stage, but it might be left in the rehearsal room after week one, you know that you're on to a good thing.

And the woman who plays Penelope, Olga Wehrly, is so strikingly beautiful, and an amazing back! Did you have auditions to look at woman's backs? We did, we did. She's an incredibly powerful actor. We were very, very lucky to get her. Because it's hard to do what she does, really difficult. And I think Michael went through 50, 60 people to find her. It's the energy that she gives off, her concentration, and this lonesomeness. Penelope's story hangs above the play. It seems much bigger, the love that she must have for her man, and all the things that are happening deep in the pool. And yet at no point does she talk. The play is not about her in particular, but it's so important she's there. You have to feel that lonesomeness and yearning, but we also have to be mindful of the beauty of it and the stillness of it, and it throws into relief their ridiculous fucking ant-like existence down there.