heart is like
A squeezed grape
Only the pip
Only the pip."
- J.P. Donleavy from The Ginger Man
by Les Gutman
J. P. Donleavy was one of many young American men who found Trinity College in Dublin an inviting place to unwind after World War II. He maintained enough distance from his endlessly carousing buddies, however, to become a keen observer of what he saw. It's a facility that has served him well ever since. The Ginger Man, his first novel and the one that put him on the literary map, grew out of that experience.
A few years after he finally got that book published, Donleavy adapted it into this play. It was produced in London and Dublin in the late 1950's, and in New York in 1963. The Ginger Man was considered pornographic when it debuted (both as a book and a play). Lest anyone make the trek all the way west on 51st Street expecting to be titillated, be advised that by today's standards its sexual suggestiveness would barely require a PG rating. The current revival (the first ever in New York) is a project of the Dublin Theatre Company, and we are fortunate to have it here with the Dublin cast, director and designers intact.
I tend to be leery of plays adapted from novels, especially when it's the novelist doing the adapting. But Donleavy doesn't simply dramatize his novel, nor does he offer us a narrative-laden account. Instead, he's extracted a fine, compelling script from his source material, focusing on a particularly stage-worthy story that, like the book, illuminates the rogue at its center, Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield (David Murray), the self-described Ginger Man. It's more of a kitchen sink drama -- kind of an apolitical Look Back in Anger -- than the tale of urban adventure for which the book is remembered. Donleavy gives us a taste of that other world mostly through Dangerfield's interaction with his smelly, sex-obsessed-but-deprived buddy, Kenneth O'Keefe (Karl Hayden), who visits twice only to leave, first for France and then America.
Dangerfield is married and has a baby. It's an inconvenience for him but closer to a tragedy for his wife, Marion (Julie Hale). Her only sin seems to be a distaste for things Catholic, Irish or unbathed.
Sebastian is putatively in Dublin for the study of law, but the only thing this training seems to have afforded him is a quick tongue for finagling loans to buy booze, and an impressive persuasiveness that comes in handy for bedding women. He's also not bad at keeping the pesky landlord at bay. He's filled with ambition that's tempered by drink, offering his family little in the way of food, shelter (the rented house in which Act I takes place is a broken down hovel to which he's unwilling to pay attention) or companionship.
Smartly, Marion packs her bags and leaves for a better life. As Act II opens, we see the clean, homey abode to which she has escaped. In no time, Sebastian has found her and wangled his way into the house. When he begs her to let him stay, she pauses long enough for an audience member seated behind me to yell, "Don't do it!" Good advice, not heeded. Soon enough, Marion has packed her bags again, leaving Sebastian behind with her boarder, Miss Lily Frost (Mary McAvoy), with whom he is soon enough sleeping.
Sebastian Dangerfield may not sound like someone you'd like to spend an evening with, but in David Murray's hands, he's as much lovable scoundrel as incorrigible louse. His is a tricky performance (after all, an Irishman in America portraying an American assimilated in Ireland) that travels well across the Atlantic. By the time he completes a pair of tours de force in the second act (one in which he suggestively interrogates Miss Frost and the other consisting simply of his reading of a letter from the first act's landlord detailing the damages to the premises), nothing more is needed to explain the rationale for this unusual Ireland-to-America transfer.
The rest of the four member cast is also quite good, especially Julie Hale (attentive moviegoers will remember her as Christy Brown's first crush in My Left Foot), whose Marion is strong and uncaricatured, and Mary McAvoy, starchy but vulnerable and wonderful as Miss Frost. Ronan Wilmot finds an elegant path through all of this, making the performances shine in a quite modest but appropriate setting.