Conor McPherson's Nights Are Alive With Possibilities — Not All Of Them Good

NEW YORK – The operative adjective for most of Conor McPherson’s plays is “haunting.” Yes, an overused word in the critical lexicon, but it’s doubly appropriate for this Irish playwright.

First of all, there’s the supernatural element: the otherworldly stories of “The Weir,” the vampires of “St. Nicholas,” the ghosts of “Shining City,” the Devil himself in “The Seafarer.”

McPherson is saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in our secular philosophies. More important, these characters play the same role in McPherson’s work that they do in the supernatural stories of Hawthorne, James and Wharton. No zombies need apply. The ghosts and vampires aren’t here to scare us, or to foretell an apocalypse; they’re here as catalysts in the unfulfilled lives of his more corporeal characters. Can they find a way out of their no-exit lives? God only knows. Or the Devil.

Caoilfhionn Dunne (foreground) with Ciarán Hinds and Michael McElhatton in Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive" at the Atlantic Theater Company. (Helen Warner)
Caoilfhionn Dunne (foreground) with Ciarán Hinds and Michael McElhatton in Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive" at the Atlantic Theater Company. (Helen Warner)

Which isn’t to say that any of the five characters in his new play, “The Night Alive,” is extra-human. They are the usual flotsam and jetsam of McPherson’s Dublin — Tommy, the resident of the depressing, litter-strewn apartment where all the action takes place in this 100-minute play at the Atlantic Theater Company (through Jan. 26); a woman who’s been beaten up by her boyfriend and rescued by Tommy; the resident’s sidekick, maybe partner in crime, who doesn’t seem to be quite right in the head; the barking landlord.

Jim Norton as Maurice, the landlord in "The Night Alive." (Helen Warner)
Jim Norton as Maurice, the landlord in "The Night Alive." (Helen Warner)

And then there’s this fifth character who storms his way into the apartment claiming to be Tommy’s friend. Or is he the young woman’s abusive boyfriend? Or, as he grows more menacing, is he one of those devils or vampires?

But it’s the earthly characters who really haunt us when the play is over and while Boston has had some very good productions of McPherson plays, the Irish actors who come to New York are the ones who really stay with you, and the reason to see his plays in New York (or London where this originated).

Among McPherson’s Grafton Street regulars returning to New York in this Donmar Warehouse production , which he also directed, are Ciarán Hinds as Tommy (the Devil in “The Seafarer”), Michael McElhatton as Doc, Tommy’s sidekick (Roose Bolton in “Game of Thrones”) and Jim Norton as the landlord (they were two of the amiable drunks in “The Seafarer.") Each is as outstanding as ever, as are Caoilfhionn Dunne and Brian Gleeson. Norton seems there almost for comic relief, though the story he tells of his wife’s death — she slipped on the ice after he didn’t give her his arm — is the kind of McPherson story that stays with you. The man knows how to tell a "haunting" story.

As does the situation. The Marvin Gaye song, “What’s Going On,” could be the title of the play. When Tommy, Doc and the young woman (Aimee played by – get ready – Caoilfhionn Dunne) get up and dance to the song, what is going on? A dance of life, to be sure, but also a harbinger that all is not what it seems to be?

Here's a bit of the look and sound of the play:

But “The Night Alive” is the better title. The night is always alive to possibilities in McPherson plays. Death. Redemption. Dread. Courage. Despondency. Love. Even a theater critic can be transformed — see “St. Nicholas.”

“The Night Alive” isn’t as good a play as his last, “The Seafarer.” The characters and plot aren’t as interesting and the metaphors aren’t as sharp. But that’s like saying that one episode of your favorite series isn’t as good as another. When McPherson has a new story to tell, and he brings his friends from Ireland to tell it, I’m all ears.

Also in New York:

This program aired on December 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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