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A CurtainUp Review
The Night Alive
By Elyse Sommer
Tommy (Ciaran Hinds), the boy Maurice raised as his own has now passed his fiftieth birthday and is indeed, as he describes himself, "just a moocher." He's left his marriage, is alienated from his children, and scratches out a living cleaning out houses. He lives in the basement of his uncles house. And it's in this cluttered pigsty that what is essentially a story of redemption unfolds.
Welcome to the world of the lonely, unlucky in life Irish men who have found such a compassionate portrayer in Conor McPherson. While this is mainly Tommy's story, his needy and not too mentally swift helper Doc (Michael McElhatton) is, like the disapproving, grumpy Uncle and landlord, very much part of the picture. The fact that Tommy allows himself to be Doc's support system and that Maurice, for all his disapproval, still cares enough to try to keep his nephew out of trouble, helps to buttress this portrait of a loner who's allowed himself to drift into a slovenly go-nowhere life. He may not have fresh milk to pour in your tea, but the milk of human kindness has not gone missing.
But don't be fooled by my calling this a story about redemption. This is not a set-up for grand epiphanies and a happily ever after ending. In fact, McPherson, somewhat counter to his mostly quiet style of story telling, has framed Tommy's story with more plot than usual — in this case, the quiet but grungy basement world is turned on its head with both violence and an element of romance.
The romantic element comes in the form of a young woman named Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne). Tommy didn't meet her on a blind date or at a bar (dating or any sort of relationships are not part of his current life style). Instead, in keeping with his being a rough but good guy, he rescued Aimee from a vicious beating by a man whose connection to her is clarified only gradually (though fairly easy to figure out well before then). Tommy ends up not just helping to bathe Aimee's badly battered face but allows her to stay over.
Tommy's act of kindness isn't an open sesame to a moonlight and roses romance, but it does evolve into a relationship of sorts, despite her obviously problematic past. Neither does her presence shut out Doc. In one of the play's most affecting scenes — first Tommy, then Doc and finally, Aimee — dance to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"
But true to the old maxim about no kindness going unpunished, Aimee's rescue and somehow energizing presence also brings an impending aura of menace to that basement. That menace becomes all too real with the appearance of Kenneth (Brian Gleeson). Yes, he's the guy who beat up Aimee and Gleeson's performance is one of the scariest portraits of a psychopath you're likely to see on any stage in Manhattan.
If all this sounds painfully depressing and violent, it is. But Conor McPherson is one of those rare playwrights who can bring out the best in his own work, even when it's not flawlesss, as The Night Alive isn't. Besides the odd feel good quality of that above mentioned dance scene, McPherson manages to make the characters' teensy recuperative leaps work most of the time and builds up believably to the horrible violence. While the ending might have been better and more realistic after the penultimate scene, the current open to interpretation finale does allow viewers to see hope in its ambiguity — and see the overall theme as an ode to the power of ordinary people to survive by sticking up for and with each other.
Despite the darkness of these characters' lives and the situation, McPherson's dialogue is richly spiced with humor, with some of the more hilarious interchanges between Tommy and Doc. Best of all, McPherson's affection for these characters who live lives of impoverished dysfunction is rewarded by the actors who portray them.
Ciaran Hinds, last seen on Broadway as Big Daddy in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is extraordinary as the big lug for whom things haven't gone right. While a woman with an even tougher history represents a glimmer of hope, that hope comes with the possibility of even more bad luck.
Michael McElhatton is wonderfully droll as the sad sack who McPherson has gifted with his funniest dialogue. His explaining why his name Doc is short for Brian to Aimee is not just hilarious but also gives a little edge of irony to this young woman's less developed character.
Jim Norton, a prime McPherson interpreter, was last seen in a flashier, cheerier role on Broadway (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). He doesn't have as much stage time as Hinds and McElhatton, but when he's on he leaves his as usual impressive mark. His Irish brogue is also the easiest for New Yorkers to understand without straining. Brian Gleeson, as already noted, is truly scary as the villain of the piece.
While several of McPherson's plays have landed on Broadway (The Weir, and The Seafarer), more have been wisely and more fittingly staged at smaller off-Broadway stages. This is especially true for The Night Alive. The dingy basement with its high glass doors and another entrance right in the audience that Soutra Gilmour created for London's intimate Donmar Warehouse has transferred beautifully to the Atlantic Theater's Main Stage. So has this funny, sad and very human story.
The Night Alive - London
The Good Thief