The kindness of strangers can be complicated, a mixed blessing not without its drawbacks and with the rewards often arriving late, if at all, as Conor McPherson so beautifully illustrates in The Night Alive, his funny, occasionally frightening, but ultimately poignant new play at the Atlantic Theater Company.
At first impression, the denizens of McPherson's play are a motley collection of losers, living hand-to-mouth and trapped in a cage of a world they have fallen into, much like the animals in the zoo in Dublin's Phoenix Park, on the periphery of which Tommy lives in a sty of a room in an Edwardian house belonging to his uncle Maurice.
Under McPherson's own astute and well-paced direction, the lights come up several moments before the action begins so the audience can fully take in and appreciate the squalor of Tommy's digs. When Tommy does enter he is accompanied by a girl he met at the pub named Aimee. Her face is bloodied and her nose is not aligned to it as it once was. Tommy makes her a cup of tea and offers her a bed for the night, or until she can sort herself out.
Kindness, we are told, can change the world, and Tommy's small act of charity for a battered girl he had never met certainly changes his world and the small group of misfits who inhabit it.
Foremost among those is Doc, a man of no fixed abode who occasionally assists Tommy as an odd-jobs man and has a penchant for nicking turnips and potatoes from Maurice's vegetable garden. Doc, who often crashed at Tommy's in the bed Aimee now occupies, is a little slow on the uptake. As Tommy explains to Aimee, Doc's thought processes run "five to ten minutes behind everybody else." "Five to seven minutes," Doc corrects.
Then there is Uncle Maurice, a prim and lonely man who nurses his own remorse and who pounds on the ceiling of Tommy's room anytime the noise level rises a few decibels. Aimee, it is soon learned, to no one's surprise, has been "on the game," though as she insists "not anything disgusting." And Tommy himself has an ex-wife and a teenage daughter who is possibly heading for trouble, or so one gathers from his side of the occasional telephone conversation.
The joys of life in this social circle are scarce and meager. When Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" suddenly comes on the radio, for example, Tommy, Doc, and Aimee, drop everything and begin to dance to the sounds of Motown. It's a great scene and makes one forget for a moment that dangers lurk outside Tommy's room.
Those dangers eventually and inevitably arrive in the person of Kenneth, the man who rearranged Aimee's face. It is Doc who first greets him and despite some opening small talk, it is quickly clear that Kenneth is more than a little deranged. A hammer comes into play, and what has been pleasantly moving forward as a story of good-hearted souls finding redemption in one another's company abruptly swerves into a dark tunnel.
The Night Alive is, however, a play of hope at heart, a testament to the resilience of those who muddle through and discover, often to their surprise, that kindness can reap unexpected returns. Like most of McPherson's work, it is one of those plays that on first reading may seem that nothing much happens, but on reflection becomes a shattering and poetic ode to the strength of the human spirit.
A first-rate cast finds every nuance in the play. As Tommy, Ciaran Hinds is an unlikely knight, a lumbering galoot of a man who will go all the way to Finland to protect his newfound love. Caoilfhionn Dunne is excellent as Aimee, at once delicate and tough, able to take anything life throws at her. Michael McElhatton and Jim Norton, veterans of many McPherson plays, are brilliant as Doc and Maurice, and Brian Gleeson is convincingly crazed as Kenneth.