Farce gets a bad rap as a genre. Pundits will call a sporting event or a political campaign a farce when they want to denigrate it, but in the theater, sometimes there’s nothing more enjoyable than fast-moving scenes held together with physical comedy.
There are many kinds of farces: the English farce of manners (like Michael Frayn or Monty Python), the French bedroom farce (à la Feydeau), or the Italian anti-authoritarian farce (think Dario Fo). But in The Dealer of Ballynafeigh, the newest world premiere from Rosemary Jenkinson and Keegan Theater, there’s a fun new kind of farce: an Irish farce, full of marble-mouthed word-play, humiliating family members and, most of all, gobs and gobs of blood.
Ballynafeigh is a neighborhood is southern Belfast in Northern Ireland where sectarian turmoil is still an issue though, as the play alleges, former paramilitary groups (Loyalists who support the Crown and Republicans who want to separate from British rule) have turned from political organizations into crime rings.
The “Dealer” could be any one of the menagerie of quirky characters squabbling over drugs and counterfeit money in this play. The Dealer could be the protagonist Billy (played with equal measures of lovability and eager dim-wittedness by Peter Finnegan) who is muscle for a political group turned crime organization, dealing out (and receiving) brutal physical punishment as we see him in the opening scene of the play.
The Dealer could be the man he’s torturing, Jackie (Michael Kozemchak), whose bad Ecstasy has put a crime boss’s niece in a coma. It could be the crime boss himself, Mackers (played with amusing mania by John Stange), who supplied Jackie with the drugs and dishes out his own nasty forms of physical abuse on Billy for his dim-witted failures as a criminal flunkie.
Or the Dealer could be Gourley, who is an actual drug dealer with a Christ complex and wild gesticulations to boot, which would be appropriate as Bradley Foster Smith steals the show with this relatively minor character and left me teary-eyed with laughter.
But the best candidate for the Dealer of Ballynafeigh might be Billy’s Ma (played by the hilariously doting and tut-tutting Jane Petkofsky), who accompanies Billy on his torture session with homemade baked goods and commendations of Billy’s strong Protestant work ethic, however nefarious his work is.
If this sounds like a befuddling mess, don’t worry, that’s one of the great joys of this play and what makes it such a scrumptious farce. None of these characters can see beyond the end of their nose (most likely because there’s a claw hammer or revolver there), and all the while situations and positions of power change so rapidly in this play that it could seem like a blur. Add thick Ulster dialects from all of the characters, which sounded accurate to my admittedly non-Hibernian ear, and that blur has the potential to get even blurrier.
THE DEALER OF BALLYNAFEIGH
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
October 17 – November 14, 2015
1742 Church Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25 – $36
But to the credit of these actors and director Abigail Isaac Fine, they tell a remarkably clear story, and each individual moment is parsable, even if the language may not be. Keegan has included a slang guide in the program notes, but I found it to be more cute than necessary. The actors know what they’re saying, and, much like Shakespeare, it is more worth your while as an audience member to be invested in the zany action of the play than trying to discern the meaning of individual words as they fly by. Like a roller coaster, The Dealer of Ballynafeigh is meant to be ridden, not analyzed.
Don’t be fooled though, there’s much pain along with pleasure in this amusement park ride. Both Casey Kaleba as Fight Choreographer and Craig Miller in Makeup Design have pulled out the stops to give Dealer gulp-worthy displays of violence in addition to its chuckle-worthy antics. Here, playwright Jenkinson echoes Ireland’s most famous recent theatrical export, Martin McDonagh, whom she matches point for point with gruesome brutality. But whether the violence comes in the form of dire threats with power tools or painfully realistic gunshots, Jenkinson’s violence has a merry air to it, as if it’s all part of the game, rather than McDonagh’s broody savagery. This difference is what let’s patrons leave Dealer, as they did when I attended, sniggering while saying “I can’t believe I laughed at that!”
There are some drags in this usually peppy ride. Farce like this is, as David Ives would say, all in the timing. And as of now, this cast hasn’t been in front of enough audiences to really nail their timing; the audience will still be laughing at the jabbing punch of a joke and miss the funnier cross that Jenkinson has placed after. While this difficulty will be fixed in time, the dragging end of the play won’t be. Jenkinson misses an opportunity to end the play on a beautiful story with a hilarious punchline and instead lets the play go on for another 10-15 minutes which don’t particularly add anything to the evening except for time.
But these minor bumps don’t ruin the evening. Dealer of Ballynafeigh is a jaunty stroll through Ulster’s underworld, full of gasps and giggles with some vitriol and verve. I’d recommend it for a fun (if not incredibly deep) night out, as long as you’re not faint of heart.
Dealer of Ballynafeigh by Rosemary Jenkinson . Directed by Abigail Isaac Fine . Featuring Peter Finnegan, Michael Kozemchak, John Stange, Bradley Foster Smith, and Jane Petkofsky . Set Design: Robbie Hayes . Lighting Design: G Ryan Smith . Costume Design: Kelly Peacock . Sound Design: Dan Deiter . Stage Manager: Juliana Parks . Assistant Stage Manager: Diane White . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.