The Dealer of Ballynafeigh

by John Stoltenberg

When a particular company and a particular playwright hit it off such that they keep knocking it out of the park—as have The Keegan Theatre and Belfast-born Rosemary Jenkinson—theirs has to be a match made in theater heaven. And when the result of their remarkable union—The Dealer of Ballynafeigh—is yet another smashing show, it’s time to pop some bubbly.

Keegan has already mounted three productions of  plays by Jenkinson: Basra Boy (2011), Cuchullain (2012), and A Midsummer Night’s Riot (2014). Each is set in Belfast. Each is written as a monologue featuring an idiosyncratic young man (distinctly enacted with antic energy by the gifted Josh Sticklin, who also impersonated all the other characters onstage). Each was directed with distinction by Abigail Isaac Fine.

Now comes Jenkinson’s The Dealer of Ballynafeigh, also set in Belfast, also directed by Fine. Keegan has entered the work—named after a borough of Belfast—in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival along with its other entry, The Magic Tree, playing in repertory.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh has all the street lingo and quirky authenticity, all the dark and offbeat humor, all the wit and poetry, and all the fast-paced plot twists of the previous three shows. The fascinating difference is that this time the characters are played by a cast of five actors instead of one.

Haplessly unmarried and fortysomething Billy (Peter Finnegan), together with his feisty Ma (Jane Petofsky), is on a cockamamie quest to give a certain drug dealer his just desserts. Said comeuppance is warranted, Billy and Ma believe, by the fact this dealer sold a girl a bad dose of ecstasy that put her in the hospital.

It’s the sort of righteous but ridiculous plot engine that Martin McDonagh might devise, and Jenkinson’s hilarious story takes similarly macabre convolutions. Billy and Ma begin by bunglingly torturing Jackie the dealer (Michael Kazemchak); then oopsie, Ma offs Jackie by stuffing a potent white powder in his mouth. Turns out Billy is in debt for big bucks to Mackers, a macho boss man (John Stange), because the bills that Billy was to pay him were accidentally in a load of Ma’s wash, and they all became worthless because they shrank.

Of course, paper currency doesn’t really shrink in water, but the money-laundering joke is so funny, its plausibility matters not. So goes the rest of the madcap story line as well. In hopes of scoring replacement cash., Ma takes the bag of powder to sell to a zany dealer named named Gurley (Bradley Foster Smith), who’s got a strange messiah complex.

Though the title, The Dealer of Ballynafeigh, could be an homage to Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Jenkinson’s script is every bit the equal of the best of McDonagh’s work. When the handguns come out and the stage blood appears, there ensues the sort of gore that’s good for many a gasp and guffaw. Keegan rightly recommends the play “for audiences 16+ due to violent content and mature themes”—which is of course the very stuff that in Jenkinson’s hands is crack-up candy for grownups.

Viewed in the context of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a quality in Jenkinson’s work emerges that was not as apparent before: In all the male characters Jenkinson writes, she parses each bloke’s special hybrid of bravado and vulnerability with a rare comic eye and an acutely tuned ear.  It’s as if she has eavesdropped on real and unique young men living lives of gendered vainglory, and she has imported their riffs and rhythms into her writing to create crackling alive stage diction. That is in fact what she has done (as she told me when I met her at the opening night reception), which explains why The Dealer of Ballynafeigh is jam-packed with insightful listening transliterated into laughs.

Unlike the three monologue plays (which were written subsequent to this one, Jenkinson told me), The Dealer of Ballynafeigh features the central character of an older woman, Ma—and what a character she is. (“Way I see it,” she tells her son, “you men don’t have the intuition to understand feminine logic. The relevant bits of your brains are missing…”) Ma is brazen, Ma is forward, her cheeky wit takes no prisoners. Is Ma a tad mad? Well, maybe. But that just gives her license to say the play’s most outrageous, over-the-top comic lines. Here, for instance, is a typical exchange between Billy and Ma that reveals a complex character both comic and satiric:

Ma: … You and your guns.
Billy: It’s the only way.
Ma: I did my best with you. I never bought you a gun as a boy.
Billy: I know you didn’t.
Ma: I bought you a dolly instead.
Billy: I remember that dolly. I stole an airgun and popped it to fuck.
Ma: So much for social conditioning.

The part of Ma has got to be one of theater’s greatest comic roles for women—another welcome discovery thanks to the WVTF.

The comedy vein Jenkinson taps into calls for a really broad performance style—overbroad may be more like it. Accordingly both Bradley Foster Smith and John Stange play their parts to the hilarious hilt. If the excellent performances of Peter Finnegan, Michael Kazemchak, and Jane Petkafsky seemed ever so slightly less assured on opening night, in no way was the clockwork polish of the play perturbed.

The production shared with The Magic Tree the same set design by Robbie Hayes, a nondescript playing area made of smooth brown floor panels that slope upward to a nonspecific back wall. Though this drab double-duty scenery was an understandable convenience, Jenkinson’s play never quite seemed to be where it belonged. Despite that, the colorful texture of each vivid scene was never diminished. Similarly, though the show often seemed underlit (in G. Ryan Smith’s design), the spark in each speech was undimmed.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh has come thisclose to being a prizewinner: Keegan publicity says it came third in the BBC Tony Doyle Awards and was short­listed for the King’s Cross and Verity Bargate Award. Lucky for Washington, DC,  it has never before been produced and thus qualifies as a WVTF world premier.

The script of The Dealer of Ballynafeigh is simply terrific. As writing it ranks among my WVTF faves. DC theatergoers have The Keegan Theatre to thank for mounting another Jenkinson gem.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh plays through November 14, 2015 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.