Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Come Together: Conor McPherson's The Night Alive

Ciarán Hinds & Caolifhionn Dunne 
In the Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest play, The Night Alive – currently playing off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, where it transferred after a run at London’s Donmar Warehouse – four stumblebums collect in the back room of an old Dublin house. The owner, Maurice (Jim Norton), is an aging drunk who affects a grandstanding aristocratic manner but whose life has stalled since the sudden death of his wife. He lets the room to his nephew, Tommy (Ciarán Hinds), who has lost his business and whose teenage kids live with the wife from whom he’s been separated for two years. Tommy makes a little money as a mover but not much – in the opening scene we learn that a police video has caught him stealing gas for his van. Yet he’s generous with the little he has. He gives his pal Doc (Michael McElhatton) the only work he can ever cadge and puts him up whenever his sister and her boy friend throw him out. And when Tommy finds a battered young whore named Aimee (Caolifhionn Dunne) at a bar, he brings her home too.

The play is about finding shelter in a cold world, and McPherson, who also directed, with these four actors – especially the three men – create a congenial, appealing atmosphere within this dilapidated space. (The effective set is by Soutra Gilmour.) But there’s not enough going on in these first few scenes; it’s more like an acting exercise than a drama. You get the sense that McPherson knew where he wanted to end up – he’s written a touching conclusion - but he didn’t figure out how to get there, so for quite a while the play marks time. I love McPherson’s work – The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer, Dublin Carol, Port Authority, his screenplays for I Went Down and The Eclipse – but this is the first of his plays that doesn’t have a successful arc, including Port Authority, which is constructed as a series of monologues for three actors. (When the Atlantic staged it, Norton, who has appeared in most of his plays, was one of the trio.) About halfway through McPherson finds a way to jump-start it: he introduces a psychopath named Kenneth (Brian Gleeson, one of Brendan Gleeson’s two thespian sons), Aimee’s sometime boy friend, possibly her pimp – and definitely her batterer – who comes around looking for her. Dramatically this ploy works, but it’s synthetic, not organic, and it comes from Pinter via Martin McDonagh. Generally I find Pinter’s devices more theatrical than humanly convincing, and McPherson can write rings around McDonagh, a huckster who stoops to violence and gore when he runs out of ideas about how to rev up his audience. Since McPherson isn’t capable of the same cheap manipulation as McDonagh, the character of Kenneth feels weirdly out of place, as if it had been imported from another play. Gleeson isn’t very good in the part, but I’m not sure what he could have done to make it work.

Ciarán Hinds & Jim Norton
Norton is one of the grandest living stage performers, but his role seems barely written, so he has to rely on physical and vocal tricks. (Fortunately he’s amassed an impressive collection.) Hinds has much opportunity to flesh in a character, and he does so imaginatively, But because the play is constructed around Tommy, its structural problems get in the actor’s way. And Aimee is a mystery Dunne isn’t able to solve. The one performance that works straight through is McElhatton’s.

There’s a lovely scene in the middle of the play, just when you wonder if it’s ever really going to get started, where Tommy puts on a CD of Marvin Gaye singing “What’s Going On” and he, Doc and Aimee get up and dance, the irresistible tune and their temporary comfort in this catch-as-catch-can environment and each other’s benevolent company triumphing over their awkwardness and self-consciousness. It’s a moment that Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana would see as “broken gates between people,” and it’s the one that best embodies the theme of The Night Alive. I kept wanting McPherson to find a way to expand on this scene, but instead he brings in the psycho – his best impulse gives way to his worst. He’s an artist whose work I care deeply about, though. I can’t wait to see his next play.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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