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The Night Alive

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Caoilfhionn Dunne and Ciarán Hinds
Photo by Helen Warner.
You can take the playwright away from the spirits, but you can't take the spirits away from the playwright. In his new play The Night Alive, the Donmar Warehouse production of which Atlantic Theater Company just opened at its Linda Gross Theater, Conor McPherson turns away from both the supernatural figures and alcohol that defined his earlier works (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer, Rum & Vodka) and investigates instead the even more ethereal and (theoretically) relevant human heart. The results are, shall we say, not exactly haunting.

McPherson, who directs his own writing here, has undeniably achieved his vision of exploring how a certain class of people fuels itself with certain crucial fantasies. When Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) brings home a young woman named Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) to shelter her after he observed her receiving a rather public beating, he harbors some illusions about where things may head. Aimee still bears some feelings toward her never-give-up aggressor, Kenneth (Brian Gleeson). And both Tommy's friend and associate, Doc (Michael McElhatton), and landlord, Maurice (Jim Norton), possess their own naïve assumptions about the passage of life that are determined to not come true.

It's a convincing slice of life, no doubt, with the actors superbly matched to their roles and never overplaying the desolation that not-so-secretly rules their lives. The sets and costumes (by Soutra Gilmour) and lights (by Neil Austin) magnify the impression of a society on the outs, with Tommy's room a veritable dump of garbage that reflects the state of his attitude toward life in general. One of the funniest bits of business, which finds Tommy trying to shove a too-large pizza box into a plastic garbage bag before giving it up and shoving it under the bed instead, eventually proves a crystalline distillation of character from which Tommy is able to evolve to something different, and supposedly better.

But waiting for McPherson to condense his numerous disparate story threads (Tommy's divorced from his wife and child, Doc's at odds with his own spouse, Aimee's razor-edged brushes with the law, and so on) into a singularly specific and powerful vision of life unlived proves fruitless. In his previous otherworldly plays, McPherson was always inspired by a single hook—the spinning of spooky tales, the devil playing poker, a phantasmic twist ending—that gave shape and structure to everything that surrounded them. And though most playwrights would latch onto plumbing souls for their emotional depths as sufficient for accomplishing that, doing so is not quite enough for McPherson this time.

Rather, he trades too much on what we don't know, which has the obvious side benefit of reinforcing the weight of the deadly secrets bearing down on each of his five characters, but doesn't suggest that the parts we do see are worth spending much time on. Tommy's pain and loss are buried so far beneath his skin that it could not realistically be revealed as quickly as his compressed relationship with Aimee demands. It's equally important that we see Aimee as being torn between Tommy's avatar of heroic disorder and Kenneth's of regimented agony, but the magnetism that draws her to the latter frustratingly remains both unstated and unhinted at. What propels Doc, unless it's a basic urge for survival, is likewise left unexplored. Only with Maurice does McPherson link the avuncular concern we see to a concrete psychological event.

Playwrights don't need to spell out everything, of course—and McPherson has thrived on ambiguity in the past—but you do need to believe that they know the underpinning for every line they write and every action they depict. The jagged scenes of The Night Alive, which at times suggest a quasi-Pinteresque devotion to obfuscation for its own sake, are calculated for maximum external impact—two featuring Kenneth extending an instant of dread to multiple minutes at a time are genuinely unsettling (in a good way)—but fail to scorch, move, or even involve you on a more significant level. None of the people you're watching quite know what their lives are adding up to; you won't be more sure yourself, even when the lights go down for the last time.

Hinds, recently seen on Broadway in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is excellent portraying the burned-out Tommy, a reluctant savior who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got more out of the bargain than he expected. The rage, disappointment, and hope build up behind Hinds's eyes and energize him to link the various aspects of Tommy that might otherwise seem randomly distributed. Dunne's work is simpler and subtler, but quite good nonetheless, particularly during the packed-to-the-gills silences in which Aimee seems most comfortable living. Norton's role is tiny, but he makes a major impression as the deceptively sentimental Maurice; and McElhatton and Gleeson adroitly balance the despondent and the absurd in their portrayals of men who approach life and success in very different ways.

In no small part because of their liveliness, The Night Alive feels more like a character study than a drama, but without the coordinating peaks, valleys, and clarifying details that might make it come, well, alive. If McPherson deserves credit for daring to dig deeper into what makes us who we are, especially when it comes to how we behave around the people we care about most, the greater lesson he's imparted is that those who don't have stories don't necessarily need to tell them anyway.

The Night Alive
Through January 26
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at

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