Playwright Conor McPherson has a signature knack for framing the big questions inside quiet, unassuming lives. In Quotidian Theatre Company’s moving production of McPherson’s The Night Alive, his downtrodden characters share existential debates, flickering hopes, and brief kindnesses in a dingy flat on the outskirts of Dublin. Beneath the hanging gloom and pessimistic Irish humor, I found one of the most life-affirming productions I’ve seen in a long time.
Over the years, McPherson has made it his stock and trade to wring poetry, drama, and mysticism from unexpected locales on the fringes of his native Ireland. In works like The Weir, The Seafarer, and Shining City, McPherson takes audiences into ramshackle bars and run down houses to witness characters struggling with faith, financial troubles, and broken relationships. Laced through his work is a supernatural quality, sometimes manifesting as ghosts, sometimes merely as an allusion to a greater power. Quotidian – the playwright’s unofficial home in the DC region – long ago mastered the type of delicate, metaphysical production that helps McPherson’s work sing. The Night Alive continues in this vein with the affecting tale of mooching handyman Tommy (Matthew Vaky) and soft-spoken bungler Doc (David Dubov).
Tommy and Doc make a fine odd couple as they squabble about petty debts, business schemes, and the nature of reality in Tommy’s dingy flat. The actors take a few minutes to hit their stride, initially seeming a bit unsure of their timing. But they eventually settle into an engaging, Seinfeldian groove as they pass the time chattering about mostly nothing. Joe Palka presides over the flat as Tommy’s landlord Maurice, a cantankerous widower with a good heart. Despite Tommy and Doc’s quirky optimism, their household is haunted by the specter of loss, alienation, and squandered potential. For much of the play, the apartment feels almost frozen in amber and disconnected from the outside world. Director Jack Sbarbori plays up this feeling by bridging each scene not with blackouts, but with segments of swirling gray light and eerie music that evoke purgatory.
The Night Alive
closes November 20, 2016
Details and tickets
The sleepy flat wakes up with the arrival of Aimee, a troubled escort (Chelsea Mayo.) Mayo’s wounded, wide-eyed performance methodically chips away at Aimee’s rough exterior, as she warms to the idea of a better life that before seemed impossible. Tommy, too, begins to wake from his apathetic slumber to find he actually wants something more than his aimless bachelor life. Vaky explores Tommy’s unexpected emotional depths with awkward romantic advances that are both heartfelt and heartbreaking. And despite some excessive rambling, Dubov pulls on the audience’s heartstrings as Doc desperately struggles to find his place in the new order. An uneasy truce maintains some semblance of a status quo – until Kenneth comes along.
Kenneth is a menacing shade from Aimee’s life outside the comfy bubble of the apartment, played with an unstable mix of clarity and madness by Grant Cloyd. He’s a tidal wave, a meteor, an extinction-level force that threatens everyone in the little flat. All of McPherson’s plays allude to the cruelty of the outside world, but none take such a visceral approach. Kenneth upends the play’s quiet rhythm in a series of violent confrontations that leave no one, including the audience, unscathed. You can almost feel the characters wanting to ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” In McPherson’s uncertain world, the answer seems to be: “Just because.”
The production’s most powerful moments come when the dust settles and the remaining characters seek redemption and new purpose as best they can. McPherson’s dramatic signature is a gritty, darkly comic picture of real life, warts and all – but with shining glimmers of hope and higher meaning hidden among the weeds. The Night Alive urges audiences to celebrate the small victories, forget grudges, and get to the business of living. As Maurice prophetically says to Tommy, “You only get a few real goes in this life.”
The Night Alive by Conor McPherson . Director: Jack Sbarbori . Featuring Joe Palka, Matthew Vaky, Chelsea Mayo, David Dubov, and Grant Cloyd . Assistant director/Stage manager: E. Lynda Bruce . Set, Costume, Properties Designer: Jack Sbarbori . Sound Coordinator: Ed Moser . Sound Designer . Jack Sbarbori . Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Produced by: Quotidian Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers.