Critics: We are the worst—or, perhaps, the second worst, just behind vampires. As the unnamed Dublin theater critic at the center of Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas tells it, he was the absolute lowest person he knew: a petty, jealous drunk whose only joy in life was in ruining others through his work. Only when a particularly rough jag brought him into conflict with actual bloodsucking undead monsters did he get some much-needed perspective on humanity.
If that tidy summary of St. Nicholas seems odd, that’s because McPherson’s evening-length 1997 monologue is mighty odd as well. The play is eerily off-kilter, and Simon Evans and actor Brendan Coyle turn it into a potent witches’ brew. This production, which originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is only in town through January 27, and it’s an uncanny must-see.
Best known around these parts as the steadfast Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey, Coyle ably unearths what little charm there is his rough-hewn character. He grasps the man’s clarity: He spies his own faults even more acutely than everyone else’s. It helps that Coyle has a rascally charisma all his own. As he lumbers gracefully across Peter McKintosh’s bombed-out set—picture a trendy loft that’s barely survived an apocalypse—Coyle unfurls his sordid tale with an unhurried air. He knows that we’ve come to hear his story, and he can take his time to tell it right.
It’s impossible to deny that St. Nicholas offers an uncharitable view of theater criticism. And yet, for this critic at least, it evokes a pang of nostalgia. The critic in this play has a job, after all, and it’s a cushy sinecure at that. Two decades ago, St. Nicholas might have read like an attack, but for today’s lowly freelancer or harried critic-reporter-editor-receptionist-adman-janitor, it now has the air of an elegy. Critics! Remember critics? They were the worst.
Goodman Theatre. By Conor McPherson. Directed by Simon Evans. With Brendan Coyle. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.