The Night Alive

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Photograph: Helen Warner
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Photograph: Helen Warner
The Night Alive
Atlantic Theater Company, Chelsea Sunday February 2 2014 15:00

The Night Alive. Atlantic Theater Company (see Off Broadway). Written and directed by Conor McPherson. With Caoilfhionn Dunne, Brian Gleeson, Ciarán Hinds, Michael McElhatton and Jim Norton. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.

The Night Alive: in brief

The Atlantic reaches across its namesake ocean to import the Donmar Warehouse production of the latest work by writer-director Conor McPherson (The Weir), in which a lonely Irishman tries to help a struggling woman and finds himself in a sea of troubles. The cast includes Michael McElhatton, Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton.

The Night Alive: theater review by David Cote

“What’s going on?” Questions don’t come more basic than that. It’s the query famously sung by Marvin Gaye on his 1971 hit album, a poster for which adorns the wall of a shambolic bedsit in Dublin, the setting for Conor McPherson’s wonderful new play, The Night Alive. Sure enough, we’ll hear that same plaintive tune before the night is over. But the identical inquiry may occur to audiences: What is actually happening here—and is there more to this world than appears?

This is McPherson we’re talking about, so the answer is obviously yes. Although the great Irish playwright has peppered previous work with vampires (St. Nicholas), ghosts (Shining City) and Satan himself (The Seafarer), this time he keeps the metaphysics on the margins. On paper, The Night Alive is a straightforward tale that begins with Tommy (Hinds) coming to the aid of Aimee (Dunne), a young woman whose nose has been bashed by her boyfriend. Tommy brings Aimee home to his filthy, littered room, the first floor of an Edwardian building owned and also inhabited by disapproving Uncle Maurice (Norton). Aimee crashes there for a bit and gets to know Tommy’s business associate, Doc (McElhatton), a moony fellow who helps with odd jobs. Doc tells Tommy that the girl is known in town as a prostitute, and indeed, she gives Tommy manual relief for cash. Sudden, sadistic violence enters the picture in the form of Kenneth (Gleeson), Aimee’s psychotic boyfriend. Lives are smashed up and then reassembled. By the end there’s a note of tentative hope. Sounds like an ordinary tale of lonely losers tangled up in each other’s messy lives.

But there’s more to it, a mystical chord that twangs underneath the seriocomic banter and scary, realistic violence. In an eye-opening interview that McPherson gave to John Patrick Shanley in a recent issue of American Theatre, the writer-director says that he originally conceived a second part of the play “set in Heaven, or Purgatory, really.… At a certain point, God was going to come and explain everything.” In The Night Alive, there’s talk of time waves, the afterlife, death and black holes, but no supernatural manifestations—McPherson buried it. What does linger is the faintest sense of spiritual allegory: Tommy is a soul in limbo, inhabiting a transitory, hermitic space. Aimee comes into his life as a fallen angel, one pursued by a harrowing demon (her vicious boyfriend). Doc is Tommy’s fellow traveler, a sort of holy fool who must be protected from the world. And Maurice, who lives on the floor above and pounds on it when Tommy and his friends get too rowdy, could be construed as a distant, censorious deity. What this adds up to is too delicate to identify with total surety, but McPherson is clearly exploring states of damnation and salvation.

This may sound like critical overreach, but just look at Soutra Gilmour’s set. Stage right are high double doors that lead to a balcony overlooking a garden. The doors are partly made of colored glass, and between light shining through and latticed shadows of trees, they look very much like stained-glass windows in a church. Stage left is a long, dark corridor that leads past the audience to the rest of Maurice’s house. With subtle design choices, McPherson and his collaborators transform the Atlantic Theater Company into a religious zone, a place of spiritual transit. Certainly the final scene will leave you wondering if at some point we left the earthly plane.

None of this highfalutin conjecture comes out in the performances, which are all grounded, warm and fully realized. Hinds shuffles around his messy kingdom like a poorly groomed Irish wolfhound, maintaining a cheery dignity despite life’s pricks. McElhatton takes a familiar type—the softheaded sidekick—and likewise finds pockets of grace. Watching Dunne soften and sweeten under Tommy’s ministrations is a joy. And watching a baleful Gleeson stalk Doc is a terror. Finally, Norton adds yet another indelible portrait of dissolution and heartbreak to his large store of McPherson elder figures. Each of these fine actors establishes, quickly and expertly, who they are. It’s their world that’s mysterious. The beauty of McPherson’s writing is that peripheral, shimmery weirdness, the tug at your sleeve of something so otherworldly and luminous, you can’t bear to turn around and look. What’s going on? A spellbinding and absolutely gorgeous new play by one of the true poets of the theater, that’s what.—Theater review by David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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Venue name: Atlantic Theater Company
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Address: 336 W 20th St
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