By: David Sheward
Many of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s works such as The Weir, Shining City, St. Nicholas, and The Seafarer feature ghosts, vampires, and devils as metaphors for the forces of loneliness and bad luck that oppress his misbegotten characters. In his The Night Alive, now at the Atlantic Theater Company-in a spare and shattering production directed by the author from London’s Donmar Warehouse-there are no supernatural forces at play, only the demons of alienation and desolation besetting a group of downtrodden Dublin folk. There are no histrionics, tears, or melodrama here, just five believable people trying to cope with the bad hand life has dealt them.
The action revolves around Tommy, a middle-aged drifter, divorced from his wife, and estranged from his two children. His only asset is a van, which allows him to perform odd jobs with his loopy mate Doc, who is even more unsettled, having just been thrown out of his sister’s house. Tommy lives in a disheveled room in the house of his uncle Maurice, a gruff old man drowning himself in booze over his wife’s recent death. This dysfunctional, makeshift family is thrown into a chaotic whirlwind when Tommy rescues Aimee, a pathetic sometime prostitute, from her psychotic boyfriend Brian.
The Irish cast gives decidedly unflashy performances. Ciarán Hinds, who has been virile and commanding as Julius Caesar on the HBO series Rome and as Big Daddy in the last Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is almost unrecognizable as the unshaven, rootless Tommy. This is a guy you might pass on the street in any city and not give him a second thought. Hinds doesn’t wear Tommy’s sorrow on his sleeve, he covers it up with jokes and brash bravado. So when he bears his heart to Aimee in a brief plea for her to stay with him, it’s devastating. Likewise, Caoilfhionn Dunne doesn’t give us actress-y tears or screaming fits to demonstrate Aimee’s dodgy mental condition. She seems to be moving through a fog, which breaks only occasionally. It’s a frighteningly real depiction of a woman unable to connect and struggling to overcome her lack of affect.
Jim Norton makes Maurice’s grief over his wife and disappointment over Tommy part of the man’s skin. He has accepted his sorry lot and only bemoans it when he has got a snootful. Michael McElhatton’s puppy-ish Doc is simultaneously lovable and infuriating. The guy is endearingly naïve, yet so clueless as to drive Tommy up the wall. Brian Gleeson is appropriately menacing as the dangerous Brian. He doesn’t telegraph the character’s psychosis, which makes it all the more scary.
Kudos to Soutra Gilmour’s grubby and gritty setting and costumes, Neil Austin’s moody lighting, and J. David Brimmer who has the unique program credit of "violence consultant." The violence, like every other element of the production, is subdued and admirably lifelike.
Dec. 12-Feb. 2. Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $65. (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com
Photo: Helen Warner