The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written several excellent plays, and at least four of them have made the journey to New York, establishing him as a major contributor to our scene. The Weir, Shining City, Port Authority and The Seafarer all display McPherson’s imaginative mind and intoxicating use of language.
He’s a story teller for sure, and the yarns he spins always take us to places most of us have never been. His most recent export, now playing into February at the Atlantic Theatre off Broadway, is the always engrossing The Night Alive which is set in a flat on the ground floor of an Edwardian house near Phoenix Park in Dublin. It’s autumn in the present time, set in a multi-purpose vast room that is a total mess, filled with trash, dirty laundry, a sink full of unwashed dishes, a mattress and chair or two. The apartment belongs to Tommy, who lives beneath Maurice, who owns the house. The condition of the apartment tells us much about Tommy, who is clearly living close to the edge.
The play grabs our attention immediately as Tommy returns home supporting a badly bruised girl named Aimee, whom he has rescued from a tyrant whom we’ll get to know later when he tracks her down and attempts to finish his attack. Tommy’s occasional odd job work partner Doc will show up as well, seeking a bed, as he’s flat broke and in need of shelter. Into the mix we’ll have a visit or two from Maurice, who will have a lot to say about what goes on in this squalid set of rooms, none of which appeals to him at all.
In the more than capable hands of first rate actors who come to us from their success in the play at the Donmar Playhouse in London, we have an absorbing firecracker of a play that has us glued to our seats for all of its 100 minutes of tight writing, beautifully staged by Mr. McPherson himself, who convinces us that no one could understand his very original characters better than he.
To give them life, to make them flesh and blood, he returns to several of his unofficial company of actors, starting with the always surprising Ciarán Hinds, the impish Jim Norton who can swing from rage to whimsy in the middle of one sentence, and the very useful Michael Mcelhatton. But the rest of this cast of six is up to the high standards of their fellow players, and the result is a perfect example of what good theatre is all about. Speaking for myself, the play and its players took me into a world so different in so many ways from the one in which I live, yet fascinated me as I watched a lifestyle that was accurately pictured, to spend a night, a very specific night, in the company of such beautifully drawn characters that I related to all of them, and became engrossed in their vital and vibrant tale of woe. Don’t be afraid to join them however, because dark and dangerous as is their story, there is hope in it and enough light to make us root for them, and to take joy in their journey, for in the end this is a play about survival.
Ciarán Hinds continues to show us how gifted a character actor he is. So very different than the devil himself, which he played in The Seafarer, even more different than “Larry”, his character in Patrick Marber’s Closer which he played on Broadway 13 years ago. These three characters alone should require the services of three actors, and would if there were no Ciarán Hinds waiting in the wings, for one embodies evil, another is a modern man in a play that deals with the politics of sex, and his current assignment has him as a free soul who learns how to face reality without selling his soul to do so. I don’t know if Mr. Hinds sings or dances, but it wouldn’t surprise me if next season he shows up as Harold Hill in The Music Man or Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, surprising us once again, as did Robert Preston and Rex Harrison in the original productions of those two musical tours de force.
I continue to throw bouquets because the always welcome Jim Norton is in the cast. I still vividly remember his toastmaster in last season’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in which he sang and danced like an aged George M. Cohan, yet here he is returning to McPherson territory (he’s a McPherson “regular”) to bring us Maurice, the ebullient and garrulous landlord whose last minute pronouncements lead us to a satisfying but surprising conclusion to this very powerful play. Only space limits me from mentioning each of the rest of this fine ensemble cast, all of whom deliver crystal clear characterizations.
I saw the play on a freezing January afternoon the day after a sizable blizzard hit the streets of New York. For almost two hours we were able to forget the weather, and have ourselves a fine time losing ourselves in this most unlikely setting following a group of desperate oddballs working their way through one night in their misbegotten lives, bringing light to a dark corner of humanity in all its blazing glory.
The Night Alive is onstage at the Atlantic Theater 336 W. 20th Street, NYC until February 2, 2014.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.