In the bowels of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre lurks a terrifying creature of the night. Avoiding the light whenever possible, he prefers the anonymity of the shadows. He feeds on the innocent, who's strength and vitality feed his burning hunger. His hypnotic control over the weak is legendary, and has been known to topple empires. He's been called a bloodsucker and a leech (but rarely to his face) and is proof positive that the pen is mightier than the sword. I am, of course, referring to that most reviled of horrific personalities, the theatre critic.
In Conor McPherson's one-man show, St. Nicholas, this horror without a name prowls the upper levels of the Bullitt space before settling down to regale us with a tale of depravity and eventual semi-redemption. The irony and joke of St. Nicholas is that in order for the critic to regain a trace of his humanity, he must encounter a more gothic and literal species of bloodsuckers. McPherson's critic (whose name we never learn) is a thoroughly debased and wretched soul who is "famous for all the wrong reasons" - not for any act of creation on his part, but for the skewering of those who possess the gifts he is lacking. He is one of the most unlikable creatures to grace the stage, having no redeeming or even sympathetic qualities. Put him on a desert island, and he would either be the uber-survivor or murdered in his sleep.
Luckily, he is brought to life by one of Seattle's premier actors, Laurence Ballard, who has been remarkable in every show in which I have seen him perform. In lesser hands, the Critic could be insufferable, but Ballard infuses him with a sharp, wry humor, which when combined with intense self-awareness, makes him somebody we can enjoy spending a few hours with. This more than makes up for the flaws in the show, which comes very close to overstaying its welcome.
While there is no denying McPherson has a way with words and a remarkable ability to create tapestries of imagery from them, St. Nicholas would have benefited from some judicious editing and should have been condensed to a single act. The first act rambles in its set up of how unpleasant the Critic is and spends too much time focusing on his obsession with an actress he saw in a production of Salome. By the time the show starts gathering momentum and regains our interest by entering the sphere of the supernatural, the intermission brings the proceedings to a screeching halt. The second act is much more enjoyable, as the Critic meets and becomes a pimp for his undead counterparts. This allows Ballard to show-off some incredible storytelling skills, and (pardon the pun) really gives him something in which to sink his teeth.
The direction by Jeff Steitzer was surprisingly uneven and in the beginning had the feel of forced mood. Having the Critic start the show by wandering throughout the upstairs area of the space made it hard to concentrate on what was being said, especially since it practically gave one a crick in the neck to try and see him. The uneven lighting did not help, as the adage "out of sight, out of mind" became very much applicable. Since the tone of the speech at that point did not warrant such theatrics, I found myself zoning out rather than being enthralled or 'spooked.'
Laurence Ballard's performance, however, is worth twice the price of admission ($15, $10 if under 25), and the show has some wryly humorous observations on humanity in general, and theater critics in particular. St. Nicholas runs at ACT through September 10. Tickets are available exclusively through the ACT Box Office (206) 292-7676, or online at www.acttheatre.org.