“Blessed is he who expects nothing,” Alexander Pope once wrote, “for he shall never be disappointed” but Pope was wrong, for you can have little and expect less, like Tommy (Barry McEvoy); like Doc (Brian Mallon) and Aimee (Mollie Goff); hope only to have a warm cot and a turnip or two, and still have things go horribly, horribly wrong. A person irrevocably defeated by life seems to be a magnet for more disaster. Sometimes, Mr. Pope, life just piles it on.
So it is that one chilly Dublin evening that Tommy is steering Aimee, bloodied and a little disoriented, into the flat he rents from Uncle Maurice (Ron Litman). To call this flat shabby is to do insult to shabbiness everywhere; the place where Tommy lives looks like a dorm room in a college which has long lost its accreditation. Filth covers the walls, which are otherwise adorned with posters of Finland and of Marvin Gaye (who, we should remember, was shot to death by his father). The bathroom is the size of a closet; the kitchen consists of a single hot plate; and the utilities are dependent on Tommy’s ability to pry change out of the electrical outlet’s coinbox. (Kudos for Michael C. Stepowany’s set). If this is a step up for Aimee, you can only imagine the hellhole she’s been in.
A man has beaten Aimee up; she lies about who it is; Tommy knows the lie and accepts it, as he accepts the lie that his own story will have a happy ending. They settle down into a sort of uneasy domesticity, joined periodically by Doc, who assists Tommy in his occasional labors. Doc is not the sharpest knife in the drawer (Tommy tells Aimee that doctors found Doc “five to ten minutes slower” than anyone else; Doc quickly corrects him: “five to seven minutes slower”.) But he possesses a loopy spirituality, having been kicked out of his meditation class, he assures us, for levitating.
Uncle Maurice, a querulous, bellicose old man, also appears periodically, to cast a fierce suspicious eye on the proceedings. If Tommy, Doc and Aimee hide guilt for their ruined lives behind their bravado, Maurice is happy to play the judge, and to hold them to account for the deprivations of his own life…his missing turnips, his stolen electricity, the morning paper, given to him in a battered condition, and — his wife, three years dead now, who by falling on the ice and then unexpectedly leaving the world ten days later turned him into an old man.
Much of Conor McPherson’s play is without dramatic incident, but the characters are so artfully drawn and, in Scena Theatre’s fine production, so authentically and convincingly rendered, that we don’t mind. Tommy shares the small pleasures of his flat with Aimee and Doc — fish ‘n’ chips, a trip to the store for lottery tickets, sex, of a fashion, a graceful dance to the music of Marvin Gaye. They each face terrible dilemmas and have no idea how to resolve them (you won’t either) but for the moment they are alive, and capable of something like joy.
There is a snake in their seedy Eden, of course, and he is Kenneth (Robert Sheire), the man whose beatdown of Aimee put the story in motion. Kenneth is a psychopathic criminal, without empathy or remorse. Moreover, he is fearless — that is to say, incapable of recognizing danger or the possibility of defeat, as opposed to the brave person, who recognizes danger and moves forward anyway. Sheire gets all of this; with his incongruous hipster haircut and his Amish-country fire-red beard, he could be the Viking demigod Loki, if Loki had a job in the advertising industry.
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The Night Alive
closes April 9, 2017
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Kenneth is the personification of intimidation, and in their interactions with him, Mallon and particularly McEvoy appear brilliantly intimidated. You can tell Tommy is terrified by this monster, but his honor as a man (as well as his financial well-being) requires that he stand up to him. And so he utters his demand that Kenneth leave, low-voiced, with his eyes on the floor, willing himself forward toward this maniac. He is, come to think of it, a brave man, and he shows us how a brave man acts in the face of terror.
McEvoy and Mallon are both veteran Irish actors with broad experience and credentials, and bring great subtlety and complexity to their portrayals. Doc, for example, is a simpleton, but when he eventually relates a dream which accurately describes time and black holes, and has theological implications, we can believe that this is really Doc. Among the pleasures which McEvoy and Mallon bring to this production are their authentic Irish accents, which are a little less light and lyrical than the ones we customarily see in American movies.
A few words about Litman’s portrayal of Uncle Maurice: it is astonishing. Stroke-beset, staggering, fulminating, occasionally drunk, occasionally a great wound open to the world, full of fire and spit, he is the embodiment of Dylan Thomas’ famous line “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Normally, an actor who calls attention to himself like this is at war with the intention of the playwright, but not here; for Uncle Maurice, as McPherson draws him, also draws attention to himself. His grievances against the world, in his mind — and yours too, upon sober reflection — are at the heart of the play.
How does it end? That would be telling, but here’s a hint. Remember the terrifying ending to McPherson’s Shining City? Well, pull it inside out. And that, brothers and sisters, is none too shabby.
The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Robert McNamara, assisted by Anne Nottage. Featuring Barry McEvoy, Brian Mallon, Ron Litman, Robert Sheire and Mollie Goff. Set design: Michael C. Steowany . Costume design: Alisa Mandel . Lighting design: Marianne Meadows . Sound design: Denise Rose . Stage manager: Jenna Lawrence . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.