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The dangerous sparks emitted when a lonely, luckless man is drawn to a bad-news woman might seem like well-worn dramatic terrain. But in the hands of Conor McPherson that encounter yields developments that are funny, melancholy, frightening and ultimately affecting. While supernatural dread has often coursed through the veins of this uncommonly gifted Irish playwright’s work, in The Night Alive the menace of physical and emotional violence is all-too-human, as is the whisper of redemption that follows. Arriving Off Broadway in a beautifully acted production from London’s Donmar Warehouse, directed by McPherson and starring Ciaran Hinds, this is a captivating play rich in tenderness.
Designer Soutra Gilmour’s grungy set speaks volumes even before anyone shows up. A dank downstairs room in an Edwardian house, its moldy walls and ceiling, cheap furniture and general mess suggest transitory squalor that has somehow become permanent. This sad cave is the domain of paunchy, middle-aged Tommy (Hinds), a working-class Dubliner whose slouchy posture and shabby clothing, greasy mullet and droopy mustache make him a perfect match for his environment.
A self-confessed moocher, always behind in his alimony payments and struggling to maintain a relationship with his kids, Tommy rents the makeshift studio flat from his Uncle Maurice (Jim Norton). The thorny old widower frequently wanders in from upstairs to make disapproving pronouncements, his haughty demeanor barely changing even when he’s roaring drunk. The other regular is sweet, ingratiating Doc (Michael McElhatton), Tommy’s adoring (and seemingly only) friend, and his sidekick in whatever odd jobs they can land to make a little cash. McPherson depicts the relationship between these two as a more poignant, though no less amusing, version of Captain Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly in Sean O’Casey’s Irish classic, Juno and the Paycock.
When Tommy brings home the battered Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), fresh from a beating, her presence in the house makes both Maurice and Doc uneasy. McPherson withholds details of her life, dropping in just enough basics to reveal that she comes with considerable baggage. But when her psychopath erstwhile boyfriend, Kenneth (Brian Gleeson, terrifying), shows up, it’s clear this won’t be a tidy story of troubled souls finding mutual comfort – at least not without complications and betrayals first.
Unlike film, where everything can be rendered with chilling realism, violence onstage is usually executed with a distancing degree of artifice. But Kenneth’s interactions, first with Doc and later with Tommy and Aimee, are as disturbing as any scene from a movie, jolting the drama with a visceral energy that radically changes the play’s tone. Even if the simmering buildup makes it obvious that something awful is going to happen, the eruptions of ugly behavior are truly shocking.
The Night Alive is less cohesive and psychologically nuanced than McPherson’s best work, like The Weir and Shining City. But the playwright explores these people’s lives and their solitude with compassion and maturity, finding poetry in their everyday language and joy in their cautious attempts to escape the enveloping bleakness. In one gorgeous mid-point scene, Tommy hears his beloved Marvin Gaye on the radio singing “What’s Going On,” rousing him out of his seated slump into a liberating dance, joined soon after by Aimee and Doc. The writer’s deep connection to his characters makes the play very much alive, as its title suggests. And if some read the silent closing scene as sentimental, others will find eloquence in its ambiguous note of hope.
What’s inarguable here is that the acting is flawless. There’s not a false note in any of the lived-in performances, from Norton’s pickled blowhard to the touching human mutt played by McElhatton (Game of Thrones), always hovering around Tommy, waiting optimistically for a pat on the head. But it’s Hinds who grounds the ensemble with his humorous, warm and wounded characterization, playing a man that couldn’t be less like his portrayal of Satan in a sharp three-piece suit in McPherson’s The Seafarer.
Venue: Linda Gross Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 2)
Cast: Ciaran Hinds, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Michael McElhatton, Jim Norton, Brian Gleeson
Director-playwright: Conor McPherson
Set & costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Violence consultant: J. David Brimmer
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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