I have caught my neck in a
mangle and will be indisposed for eternity.
Yours in death,
- J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
Dangerfield Gets Some Respect"
by Joseph Hurley
THE GINGER MAN, by J.P.
Donleavy. Directed by Ronan Wilmot. Starring David Murray, Julie Hale, Mary
McEvoy and Karl Hayden. A Dublin Theatre Company production. At the Irish
Arts Center, 553 West 51 St., NYC. Through July 2.
As a stage vehicle, J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man" is still pretty much what it's always been, not so much a play in any conventional sense of the word as a string of reasonably compelling scenes extracted from the dense text of a celebrated novel, removed and isolated from the bulk by its famous and singular author much in the way a skilled butcher might lift and isolate the heart and the kidneys of a lamb from the slain carcass.
Again, as before, the success of the work as a stage entity requires and depends absolutely upon a galvanic, lightning-like performance in the central role, that of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, an aging American graduate student at Dublin's Trinity College, partner in an uneasy marriage to a British woman, Marion, whom he bullies relentlessly and with whom he has produced a daughter, Felicity.
The role was first played in Dublin by Richard Harris, whom it put on the theatrical map, and then in London by Nicol Williamson, and in New York by the late Patrick O'Neal. The American production had the inestimable misfortune of opening on Thursday evening, Nov. 21, 1963, the night before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The play, at the Orpheum
Theatre on Second Avenue in what wasn't yet widely known as the East Village,
stayed dark on Friday night and then resumed on Saturday, continuing for a
run of 52 performances.
Now it's back, in a production by the Dublin Theatre Company, presented by the Irish Arts Center at the intimate home on West 51st Street.
This time Donleavy's Ginger Man, a term referring to the character's red hair, is played with enormous grace and energy by David Murray.
It would be all too easy to loathe Sebastian Dangerfield, a self-pitying, cruel, alcoholic non-stop talker and parasite who appears only too eager to extend his stint as a graduate student, subsidized by any and all who come into his orbit, into middle age and, if possible, beyond.
He is, heaven knows, articulate, and certain of his views and his observations may still hold up, though perhaps not as solidly as they did when "The Ginger Man" was new, a situation that's finds a parallel in Jimmy Porter, the aggrieved "hero" of John Osborne's play "Look Back in Anger," another groundbreaking work of alienation that hasn't held up over the years as well as its author might have hoped it would.
Whether any given audience accepts or rejects Dangerfield, and "The Ginger Man" with him, is in large measure in direct proportion to the leading actor's ability to generate and maintain charisma sufficient to go the distance, and here Murray succeeds admirably, but not without the expenditure of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. At times, the massive weight heaped upon the actor's shoulders results in is efforts being a bit more visible than would ideally be the case, but only sporadically is this the case.
With one notable exception, the three supporting characters Donleavy has shifted from the novel to the play come closer to resembling stage furniture than to any form of recognizable human life. That long-suffering English wife, Marion, at least until she asserts herself, is more of a punching bag than a flesh-and-blood woman, despite the gallant efforts of the attractive and capable Julie Hale to disguise the fact.
As Kenneth O'Keefe, another American on the loose in Dublin, and, probably, to one extent or another, an attempt at self-portraiture on Donleavy's part, Karl Hayden turns in a bizarrely inadequate performance, never really credible, and, far too often, not wholly audible, either. If there is a key to playing this role, basically a pawn off of whom Dangerfield scores points and from whom he borrows money, the actor seems not to have found it.
The play's saving grace, that fully rounded, clearly conceived secondary character, comes along after the intermission and injects viable life into the venture's final hour.
She is, as anyone familiar with the book will know, Miss Lily Frost, the Roman Catholic spinster who rents a room in the house on Albert Road in Dublin's Glenageary district, a dwelling to which Marion Dangerfield has fled on a futile attempt to elude her vexing husband.
Dangerfield, himself in flight from his former Blackrock landlord, and Frost arrive at Marion's new home almost simultaneously, igniting one of the funniest seductions to be found anywhere this side of Nabokov's "Lolita," a sexual adventure in which, it soon becomes clear, the virginal newcomer, a clerk in a local seed store, is an all-too-willing accomplice.
The production, under the direction of the Dublin Theatre Company's founder, has the benefit of a sly and subtle Miss Front in the skilled person of Mary McEvoy, a veteran Gate and Druid Theatre actress perhaps best known to television viewers for her long-term participation in the popular RTE serial "Glenroe," from which she has taken leave in order to make her American debut in "The Ginger Man."
McEvoy, on this occasion at least, has a rare knack of allowing her audience to peer through her eyes directly into her mind, with the canny result that the Irish Arts Center audiences get a firm sense of Miss Frost's potential sexual vulnerability even before Dangerfield himself manages to tune into her subliminal wavelength.
Frost is, to be fair, the most successfully realized character in Donleavy's adaptation, crystalline in terms of both her somewhat suffocated personal life and with regard to the lengths to which she will go in the interests of altering her state. Small and unspectacular in appearance, actress McEvoy turns in a gem of a performance as Miss Frost.
But in the end, it is Sebastian Dangerfield who makes the mare go and saves "The Ginger Man" from the doldrums that, with the wrong actor in the role, could so easily overcome the evening. David Murray, fortunately, bright of eye, agile of movement and quick of mind, is very much the right actor for the present occasion.
Niall Walsh's settings and Marie Tierney's costumes are as simple as they are apt, down to the lap robe thrown casually over a battered easy chair, the decanter in which Miss Frost produces a stash of brandy, and the hole in the left knee of what is possibly Sebastian Dangerfield's only pair of trousers.
An easygoing piano score, composed and performed by Tom Cullivan, greets the entering audience, bridges the play's scenes, and continues through the event's single intermission.
In a puzzling note, Wilmot's program places the action in "the late 1940s," while the original 1963 New York production cites the story as taking place in "the present time." Since author Donleavy went to Trinity on the G.I. Bill after World War II, the present production would appear to have put "The Ginger Man" in its correct time frame.
Even in a somewhat "bare bones" production of an imperfect stage adaptation, it is good to have Donleavy's roistering hero among us again, particularly in the face of the astonishing fact that the great movie "The Ginger Man" could logically have become has yet to be made.