I have always had an affinity for plays by and/or about the Irish, probably because of a class in Irish literature I took long ago at NYU Uptown (when there was an NYU Uptown). So I went to Conor McPherson's THE NIGHT ALIVE at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave., 310-208-5454) knowing what to expect...the West Coast premiere of a comic drama set in Dublin's Phoenix Park, near the zoo. Yes, it's a play about an irresponsible yet charismatic hulking Irish guy named Tommy (Paul Vincent O'Connor) who is deeply in debt and despair. Unexpectedly, he and his 'family' of older men have to help a young woman named Aimee who is really down on her luck. The playwright, Conor McPherson, is a three-time Tony Award nominee, which means that he is a veteran Broadway author who writes with humanity and humor. The New York Times called him "quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation." The actors were all unknown to me, albeit with fine credits, and the director is the talented Artistic Director of the Geffen, Randall Arney. In a conversation afterwards, Arney said, "People are hungry for a good story....and this is an incredibly human and exhilarating story. And nobody tells a story like Conor, who has real skill at capturing the loneliness of his character, Tommy." Played by O'Connor, who did "August: Osage County" at London's National Theatre, the Tommy lead is a guy whose marriage is on the rocks and he is headed downhill. But he's about to get another crack at life, not realizing what he has unleashed by bringing this new girl, Aimee, into his home at the beginning of the play. She is played beautifully by Fiona O'Shaughnessy ("Utopia"). Dan Donahue (the Lion King on Broadway), is Doc, Denis Arndt (Basic Instinct) is Maurice, and Peter O'Meara (Band of Brothers) as the menacing Kenneth round out the cast. As Arney told me, "His plays are populated by people rich with quirks and idiocyncracies that make them wholly individual and yet totally relatable to us all."
In an interview in the Los Angeles Times last weekend, Charles McNultry described Conor as Ireland's preeminent playwright, famous for his bruising tales of binge-drinking, invective-spewing immorality. I don't recall much about his last play at The Geffen, The Seafarer, although I do remember it had the Devil as a character playing cards on Christmas Eve.. When asked why his newer works seem to be more mellow, the playwright told his interviewer: "It probably has as much to do with getting older, seeing that life is short, that time is racing and that warmth and goodness are so much easier to live with than darkness." The writer directed the first production of this work at London's Donmar Warehouse and then it was brought to Broadway. I walked away from this play thinking that I had seen a brilliant writer take a mundane ordinary situation and create something exceptional....poetry-in-prose, if you will. I think I was uncomfortable at the start at the squalor of their apartment, the refuse on the stage and in their heads. But then the 'glory' kicked in, the magic of his words, and I perked up and listened harder. The mountain of a man that is Tommy went out for some chips and comes back with the young woman who is covered with blood, having been beaten by her boyfriend until Tommy interceded. . Quite a setup if you ask me. The five guys are figuratively stumbling in the dark, having messed up their lives. One of them says lyrically: "It's like my eyes have been taken out, and I just can't see what's in front of me, like it's always nighttime, so when nighttime really comes, you think it feels like a relief," One of the more interesting characters is the meticulous, alcoholic Maurice, his older uncle, from whom Tommy rents this garbage-strewn room.
We see this slovenly setup become a home for the girl, Aimee, as she interacts with Tommy and his buddy, Doc, who helps him fill the odd jobs they can manage. He is somewhat mentally-disabled, and Tommy describes him thusly: "His thoughts will always, always be five to ten secondds behind everybody else." There is a funny scene where Doc brings and reads from in a book, "How to Survive Life-Threatening Situations," which proves to be useful later in the play. Then a mysterious, thretening stranger, Kenneth, shows up...and you know he is up to no good. Shades of Harold Pinter and "The Birthday Party." I think the playwright is making the point here that 'to be human is to be disabled.' Probably true. That's what makes us reach out to others. We learn that Aimee is a part-time prostitute, bu t she limits her services to 'manual stimulation,' for 40 euros, which is just fine for Tommy, who tbinks sex is "a lonely business. The full job, and all that huffing and puffing, it' so unbecoming." We see Tommy talking on the phone to his estranged wife discussing their two children, and he seems to be living in his own weird world. Then a drunken Maurice collapses in grief after attending an anniversary funeral mass for his dead wife ("only eight people showed up") and Tommy has to help hm through this. We learn that she died three years ago after falling on the ice; he would have taken her arm but they weren't talking. You might think that you are watching a TV sitcom tied into a family tragedy....but you will be wrong You are watching a master craftsman slowly working his magic on your sensibilities in so many unexpected ways. There's that moment when Tommy, Aimee and Doc break into a spontaneous dance to Marvin Gaye's singing "What's Going On," I was smiling at the sight. ...Motown comes to Dublin.
Doc, Maurice and Tommy in a tense moment.
This great Irish playwright works his poetic imagery on the audience effortlessly, and by the end you are laughing and crying in equal measure. A visit to the Geffen is a 'must' for any lover of good theatre.
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