Rich, roiling, profound and profane, Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas is A Christmas Carol turned inside out. Whereas Ebenezer Scrooge had his blighted stinginess scoured through a vision of his past, present and future, the moral midget that Steve Beall portrays in Quotidian’s fine production has his emptiness filled up with the baubles he had long coveted, making him, paradoxically, emptier still. Only at his nadir is he cleansed and restored.
He is, of course, a theater critic.
He is a rich and powerful theater critic (this is Ireland, not the U.S.) — and, by his admission in the confessional first Act, a “hack”. He has a facility to “string words together” but no actual ideas. Worse, he has no opinions. What he writes comes not from his authentic experience in the theater, but from how he wishes others to see him. He is almost never enthusiastic about anything he sees, so that his readers will view him as a man of discernment, with high standards. And they do. He draws one of the highest salaries at the paper.
He doesn’t have to work too hard. He writes for about an hour in the morning, and then toodles off to the pub for a day’s drinking. Sometimes he kibitzes with his fellow critics there, or with theater artists. Occasionally he’ll go to a play. He’ll leave ten minutes before it’s over, and then go to a pub, scribble his review on the back of the program, and phone it in. Then: more drinking.
He is a prodigious drunk. He has a family, and remembers the time when they mattered to him. They no longer do now. He barely ever sees his son, who resembles him in alcohol consumption but not in income production, though they live in the same house. His aloof daughter, away at her University, holds him in contempt. His bewildered wife, who gradually loses hope that she will ever be able to communicate with him again, putters in her garden. There are pictures of all three on the cabinets, and he gestures to them as he speaks, half holding them away.
closes December 17, 2017
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He spends the first Act describing a sequence of events in which he serially commits the seven deadly sins. He is smitten by a young actress playing the title role in Salomé and so, to win her attention, he invents a series of preposterous lies which finally end in a drunken visit, more lies, vomiting, diarrhea, peeping-tomism, contemplated rape and finally a disheveled walk through the streets of Kent. That’s when the vampires come.
McPherson’s theater critic is, like Scrooge, a bad man who retains enough of his human juice to make his dilemma interesting, even sympathetic, to us. Yes, he is craven, but who among us acts with perfect integrity? He has sinned against love, but love is hard work, and we have all had moments of weakness. He is a drunk, and a disgusting one at that, but many of us have had a dram too many, and have embarrassed ourselves in consequence. We are drawn to his tenderness — he speaks wonderingly of his daughter as a child, when her whole back was smaller than his hand — and his wit, and the relentless honesty with which he details his depredations.
His relationship with the vampires takes up much of the second Act. In service to them he is made attractive and charismatic (his job is to bring large quantities of young people over to their house, for — well, you know why the vampires want them). Vampires are real — if you don’t believe in them you’ve never worked in Congress, or on Wall Street — — and they differ from us in that they have no conscience. They do not regret anything, except perhaps not feeding enough. In the midst of his gaudy plump material satisfaction, our critic must consider, perhaps for the first time, which species he belongs to.
McPherson’s critic, like many of his other characters, is a man in the confessional box, and he must tell his story in the confessional style…haltingly at first, and then with gathering momentum as he approaches the story’s climax. Beall, a veteran character actor who has made many appearances, most of them on the small stages here and in Baltimore, is brilliant at this. He delivers his two-hour monologue, at first, as if it is being forced out of him; he pauses during the middle of sentences, as if gathering courage to deliver the rest; he seems to sweat. When he talks about drinking it’s like listening to a religious acolyte talking about God, and you can almost smell the booze on him. When he talks about the actress he has fixated upon, you can hear both the tenderness and the lust in his voice.
Beall’s Dublin accent seems spot-on (there is no credited dialect coach); his pacing — both of his words and his literal pacing around the stage — are almost clinically designed to raise tension. McPherson loads the text with fairly complex and abstract philosophical observations, but Beall manages to make them important. It is the best work I have ever seen him do.
Beall, and director Jack Sbarbori, appear to understand McPherson’s point, which is not that much different than Dickens’, a hundred and seventy years ago. Humans, though they may be complete rotters, have the possibility of grace within them to the moment of their death, and redemption can happen any time.
St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson, directed by Jack Sbarbori, who also serves as set designer and costume designer. Featuring Steve Beall. Lighting design by Don Slater . Matthew Datcher is the lighting and sound technician . E. Lynda Bruce is the stage manager . Produced by Quotidian Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.