By Joseph Hurley
DESPERATIONS, by John Ruane. Directed by John Keating. Starring Duncan Rogers, Fidelma Murphy, Roslyn Hahn. Theatre for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at 10th Street), NYC. Through Sept. 10.
In "Desperations," a first play by John Ruane, the protagonist, a relatively youthful alcoholic, Tom Whelan, gregarious, affable, but perennially on collision course with his own life and the lives of everyone he knows, is facing a difficult Christmas. Christmas Eve was bad enough, since he encountered his former wife’s new husband in the street and had a tense exchange.
Whelan is homeless, broke and conspicuously lacking in prospects, and when he wakes up after a cold night on a public bench, Christmas Day is dawning and he knows he’s about to encounter virtually everyone he’s ever known in Galway City.
There’s his ex-wife, still smarting from the pain of the loss of their daughter, killed in a road accident in which the second husband appears to have been at the wheel.
There are his chums, mainly a bit younger than he is and always eager to cadge a drink off him if he has any money, or get it through trickery in the event he’s flat out broke.
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There’s the by-the-book publican, bent on enforcing the new, rigorously enforced opening times.
Though Whelan encounters a certain measure of rather grudging Yuletide charity here and there, it’s generally tinged with condescension and patronage, reflecting the contempt with which he’s regarded on nearly every side.
One exception, virtually the only one, is the mongrel dog that wanders by, as homeless as Tom himself is, which he names Shep. Despite shouts, neglect and mild abuse, Shep hangs in there, loyal and steadfast, until the end.
Playwright Ruane, a middle-aged bricklayer, never, by his own admission, wrote a word until five years ago, but he read, copiously and perceptively, acquiring a burning love for James Joyce and, if "Desperations" is any indication, a pretty fair ear for the speech of his native Galway.
"Desperations," as staged in a vast open space at Theatre for the New City on First Avenue near Tenth Street, comes across as a series of small, personal train wrecks as Whelan, the playwright’s nominal hero, collides with failure followed by rejection capped by heartbreak.
Well paced by John Keating, well known for his work as an actor with the Irish Repertory Theatre and the Irish Arts Center, "Desperations" boasts the very solid strength of a truly galvanic performance in the central role by Duncan Rogers, who recently gave a good account of himself in the well-received production of Ibsen’s "The Wild Duck" at off-Broadway’s Century Theatre.
Rogers, as guided by Keating, displays the courage and the wisdom not to play Whelan as a conventionally lovable village drunk, but instead delivers a fully dimensioned, hardcore loser, effortfully charming when it suits his purposes, but vicious, craven and manipulative when he’s relaxed and truly himself.
Rogers received strong support from a well-chosen cast, many of whose members appear in more than one role, including Fidelma Murphy, who doubles first as the judgmental Mrs. O’Driscoll, who gives him a bit of change from the bottom of her purse, and delivers herself of a lecture as she tries to steer him toward a charity shelter, and, after the play’s single intermission, returns as Mrs. Lynch, who, as proprietress of the street-corner wine shop, knows Tom Whelan and his kind only too well, but who, along with her coldness and hostility, still finds room in her heart for the occasional act of generosity.
Roslyne Hahn is nervous and chilly when her second husband reports of an encounter with Whelan, but surprisingly compassionate when she seeks him out on the drab street corner that has become his home.
And there is Jeff Burchfield as Gilhooley, the ever present cop, lurking on the sidelines, ready to pounce on Whelan and his friends, whom he sees as nuisances complicating his life.
‘din Moloney’s Shep is a canine of seemingly endless compassion and understanding.