Published March 5, 2018 –
Unhappiness in rural Dublin– Not an altogether unlikely topic for a play. But when Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre included Conor McPherson’s THE NIGHT ALIVE as part of their season of comedies, I wondered how it fit the bill. Happily the play about unhappiness somehow morphs from dark comedy to a classic film noir script and ticks all the boxes for a riveting production.
McPherson, best known as the author of THE SEAFARER and THE WEIR, has an uncanny knack for sucking the audience in from the get go. Two characters with totally unknown pasts make a dramatic entrance and engage you immediately with wonder as to who they are and what their relationship may be. The details don’t matter as much as the sense of urgency and intrigue that McPherson creates. A snooping old man named Maurice pokes around a darkened dismal flat then scurries as a middle aged Tommy drags in Aimee, bloodied and beaten in some unknown row. Flickering lights, squalor and seediness are the backdrop for the drama that will unfold.
The brilliant Brian Mysliwy, last seen at ICTC as the harried and hilarious reservationist in FULLY COMMITED, anchors the drama with shocking credibility as Tommy, the nephew of Maurice. Living a miserable life of divorce, a bad job, and no prospects of love, Mysliwy throws himself behind every action, attempting to help everyone around him while unable to truly help himself. Cassie Gorniewicz matches Mysliwy head to head, as the prostitute Aimee who is taken in by Tommy. Gorniewicz oozes a rough helplessness that endears her plight to both Tommy and the audience. Often appearing strung out, she finally relaxes as her relationship with Tommy builds, but her background proves to be too much of a hurdle for both of them.
Kevin Craig helps balance the drama as Doc, Tommy’s friend with the “borderline personality.” Borderline here implies a borderline intelligence versus a personality disorder. His simple thoughts exasperate Tommy but also bring out a fatherly concern for a guy that is not wanted by his family and is happy to live life sleeping in Tommy’s van. Mr. Craig’s portrayal was often heartbreaking in his innocence, bringing a naïve nature to his desire to be included by someone.
Vincent O’Neill gives a powerful performance as the elderly and tottering Maurice. Living a life of darkness after witnessing his own wife’s death, his misery is palpable in body language and gestures. This scrooge of a character is both pitiful and to be pitied. Having raised Tommy when no one else would sheds light on the backstory of both men’s lives and wonders why they both have such little regard for each other.
Adam Yellen is disturbingly menacing as Kenneth, the hooligan boyfriend, aka pimp, of young Aimee. His command of the stage and physical abusiveness brings Act One to a shocking climax, making it clear that McPherson shows no fear of the darker side of life.
Director Brian Cavanagh has paced the production beautifully, allowing for gentler moments to complement the height of the drama. Working with Set Designer Paul Bostaph’s fabulous setting allowed for multiple playing areas– a feat that is not easy for a theatre in the round staging. The dismal flat is full of filth, debris and mismatched furniture. Tommy snacking on dog biscuits and blowing dust out of tea cups paints a picture of the gloom. Cavanagh’s light design is subtle and portending, taking full advantage of the “noir” of the subject.
THE NIGHT ALIVE succeeds in McPherson’s attempt to bring a gritty reality to the stage, never afraid of exposing the raw sides of the common man. The darkness of night is the perfect setting for this dark tale, often played out in the dim recesses of the stage, where shadow reigns and a full blown sunrise never seems to be on the horizon for these sad souls.