As the timorous maiden accepts an offer of drink from the strangely compelling man, she quickly sketches the sign of the cross in the air. Will she be the next victim of the vampire? No, indeed, but she is the latest prey of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, the wastrel antihero of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.
Okay, so he’s not actually evil, only despicable—with less compassion than your average vampire. Dangerfield’s supposed to be an appealing rogue, but as we see him vilely mistreating his wife and his mistress—without being privy to his thoughts, as in the novel—he comes across as pretty charmless.
The play—adapted from Donleavy’s controversial 1955 book and brought here by the Dublin Theatre Company—details the shameless life of an American law student at Dublin’s Trinity College. Dangerfield (David Murray) lives in squalor with his English wife, Marion (Julie Hale), and their baby, wielding his wit and acquired upper-class accent to borrow and buy drink. When Marion escapes to a classier house, the errant husband follows. After she flees to England, he seduces their spinster boarder (Mary McEvoy). Whenever his fellow Yank classmate Kenneth (Karl Hayden) stops by for a nip, Dangerfield hits him up for a loan.
Though Donleavy’s protagonist is presented as handsome and clever, there’s little to amuse at first. In his home life with Marion, there’s vicious bickering and self-important gallows humor. It’s hard to like a guy who foists hunger and a stinking toilet on his kin, then shouts, “Shut up that baby or I’ll strangle her.” Once Marion disappears, though, our scoundrel meets a better match—dramatically speaking. The boarder, Miss Lily Frost, simmers under her genteel tweeds. McEvoy is just the right mix of prim and randy, and Murray’s Dangerfield comes into his own as the wily, engaging rascal he was meant to be. There are a frisson of sexual tension and some funny double entendres in their eyes-open mutual seduction.
Donleavy’s picture of Ireland is not pretty. The sexual mores are cruelly repressive; class and money are equally ruthless. The sex-starved Kenneth is meant to be the butt of this Irish existential joke, but Hayden’s portrayal is neither authentically American nor convincingly comical. (Hale is quite sympathetic, if a bit of a prig, as the aggrieved Marion.) Ronan Wilmot’s bare-bones production lays all its chips on character, but it never achieves the rollicking, bawdy energy for which the novel is known.
If Dangerfield isn’t as beguiling as he should be, Nosferatu’s problem is that he isn’t scary enough—or, alternatively, funny enough. Director René Migliaccio, adapting the story from F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, employs many of the movie’s now delightfully anachronistic conventions, but only halfheartedly mines them for camp. It’s too bad, because this piece begs for parody, with its melodramatic warnings and projected titles: “Nosferatu is on his way, and, with him, disaster approaches.”
Nikolai Kinski’s vampire, with his pointed ears and gnarly fingers, radiates a gentle weirdness that hovers on the comic, but his targets Ellen (Suzan Beraza) and Mina (Annie Alquist) seem merely distraught. There’s only one outright funny sequence: when two attendants at the asylum burst into Spanish suddenly, puzzling over how a corpse met his end. If only the piece had more such moments.
The staging scores, though, with its technical effects: François Tomsu’s chiaroscuro costumes and dazzling set projections, Andy Grondahl’s ghoulish makeup, Stephanie Johnson’s sensuous lighting, and the sizzling techno/classical music by Amaury Groc, Toïdoï, and Beru. The tableaux created by the large, talented cast are knockouts: a dozen red-eyed vampires scampering in the dark; a Bosch-like vision of hell with writhing multitudes; a white-gowned maiden carried on the shoulders of ghouls into an amber-lit church. If scenes like these had been presented in sequence, with titles, Nosferatu might have been a smash in 20 minutes rather than a drag at 120.
C.J. Hopkins’s A Place Like This also could have been shortened—to about a paragraph. The piece bills itself as a meditation on theater in our age. As directed by the author, 10 attractive performers sit onstage in a semicircle. They speak short lines and phrases individually, ritually varying or repeating thoughts, often seamlessly finishing one another’s sentences. Their tone is mock-serious, ironic, and playful, and this is briefly intriguing. They never say they’re talking about theater. They announce they’re not there to challenge or shake up assumptions. They address an imaginary average guy called George. Torn between the old world of ethics and love and today’s soulless consumer society, George must choose what kind of theater he wants. If he chooses the latter, he will get the kind of mindless pap he deserves. It takes A Place Like This a long 70 minutes to make this simplistic, stale point.