A fascinating conversation about the fascinating story of an all-too-ordinary man, Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas, at Washington Stage Guild, is theatre for people who like to laugh at, and think about, things they never expected. As a replacement for the originally-scheduled third installment of George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (postponed until the company’s 30th anniversary, next season), it’s comparably rich and strange, though not as rare and powerful in its vision.
Bill Largess, artistic director of the company, ambles mildly onstage in dim lighting, sipping from a mug, introducing himself to us in the character of a onetime theatre critic. He reaches center stage and the lights come up, and we see that the mug he is holding is stained with drops of blood. Already we are in McPherson’s particularly Irish magical-realist territory, where personal mysteries become realized in outwardly ridiculous, yet inwardly apt, genre tropes.
In the case of St. Nicholas, the trope we will be seeing, mixed with the banalities of a theatre critic’s midlife crisis, is “vampires.” As in the ones with pointy teeth and eternal life, the seductive kind, that seek young blood to feed on.
With the bloody mug sitting there on a little table, like a promise of plot twists to come, Largess’s unnamed character first takes on a cheerfully cynical review of his life as a theatre critic, with all the patheticness and ego usually associated with that career (also on exhibit over at Shakespeare Theatre, in their current productions: The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound). Details pile up: little bits of wisdom and self-reflection and the hidden-yet-obvious things that drive human beings, especially paunchy middle-aged egotistical ones. “She was never conscious of herself,” he says of a young actress who infatuates him, “because everyone else was busy doing that for her.”
Largess is amiable and utterly convincing as this most typical of men who seeks out, and finds for himself, an atypical change in his life story. While he comes off as somewhat over-rehearsed and disconnected from the audience, it works for the character, and he carries us through the tale confidently enough to make up for that distance. The design around him is functional and simple, as we might expect from a last-minute replacement, but nothing more is required – just McPherson’s insightful little yarn, and Largess’ expressive face and voice.
By the time the vampires make their way into the plot, enough of a foundation has been laid that we can see in their introduction nearly whatever we want. Tangled themes of performativity, beauty, id and ego and superego, sexual jealousy, the expectations society puts on men and that men put on society, the gulf between being charming and being self-reflective, they’re all there to mine for the audience member inclined to do so; they could come back a second time, and find still more to unearth. Or, instead, we can see a wicked comedy of middle-aged pompousness and comeuppance, or a fresh angle on the ever-popular vampire tale.
January 28 – February 21, 2016
Washington Stage Guild
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Thurdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $50
Whatever we do, we must admit there is some truth in this relatively unassuming little package of a stage play. As Largess’ critic says, admonishing us in a rare moment of direct address to the audience, “Don’t sit there and cast judgment on the credibility of what I’m saying when you can’t even explain why you aren’t floating off your seat.”
Vampires or no – there’s plenty that’s credible in this smart production, and with all the thoughts it puts into your head, it just might make you float off your seat a little bit.
St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson . Directed by Laura Giannarelli . Featuring Bill Largess . Set Design: Carl F. Gudenius . Costume Design: Lynn Steinmetz . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Sound Design: Clay Teunis . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman