Poetical, Strange “The Night Alive”
At the Theatre with Audrey Linden
If I had one word for Connor McPherson’s “The Night Alive”, it would be strange. Poetic but strange. The West Coast premiere is at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
McPherson writes with a simple beauty and eloquence, and he brings characters imbued with poverty vividly to life. They are illuminated as if under a magnifying glass and we come to know their inner struggles and their motives. His characters in “The Night Alive” are once again from the lower strata as in his play, “The Seafarer”. We come to sympathize and to empathize with these characters. The spotlight is on them as they are caught in a spider’s web of their own making. Tommy, the lead, is as much caught in his spider’s web as is Doc , Aimee or the other characters. This talented ensemble cast of five kept their Irish accents throughout the play, and in fact some were a bit thick and I missed some of the dialogue. Randall Arney’s direction was uneven, and some scenes stood out as such. There were also some time lapses which were not clear, and the ending was uncertain. But, overall, the writing and production values were very good and provided insight and gave fodder for thought
The poetic and metaphysical Doc referred to the human dilemma as a “black hole” and McPherson attempts to shine a light and illuminate that black void. While I was swept away into the story of Tommy and his issues, frankly, I was at times, stuck in the hole’s utter blackness. The ending, which I will not share, was an enigma and left much open to interpretation. Perhaps too much so.
The play is set near Phoenix Park in Dublin, Ireland in autumn in the present. Tommy’s flat is one large cluttered room with a bathroom in the corner and French doors that lead to a balcony and garden. Takeshi Kata’s scenic design captured the cluttered and uncared for quality that Tommy lived in perfectly. It was a reflection of his state of mind. And, the sound effects by Richard Woodbury added much to the dramatic effect as did Daniel Ionazzi’s crisp lighting. .
Tommy, (so very well acted by Paul Vincent O’Connor ) estranged from his wife and teen children, lives day-to-day in a state of upheaval and clutter. His Uncle Maurice (Denis Arndt) rents or gives his nephew the one room flat along with unsolicited and unwanted paternal advice. Clearly, he does love his dependent nephew who suffers from low self esteem and refers to himself as a “moocher.”
In a very moving scene, we are asked to believe Maurice raised Tommy “as a young pup” and “toilet trained” him, but I did not find that plausible as both actors were too close in age. I felt age wise, Arndt as Maurice was miscast. In fact, Tommy appeared the worse for wear. Arndt’s Maurice did not seem or act old enough to be the elder Uncle. He carried around a cane, but he did not make use of this prop as an older person would, and he did not need it to walk. I found myself wondering why did Maurice even have the cane? He used it apparently for sound effects when he banged on the ceiling above Tommy’s flat. The character of Maurice was not fully realized by Arndt to be older which bothered me. He also did not maintain his accent during opening night.
Doc, (Dan Donhue) who adapted his name from Doc Martin shoes , is borderline disabled mentally and emotionally. Donahue gave a remarkable performance complete with an Irish accent that was a little difficult to understand on opening night. He waxed poetic on Eastern philosophy about one’s state of mind and attitude and the black hole of existence.
As the play opened Tommy brought in Aimee, (Fiona O’ Shaughnessy, and what a great breathy, earthy voice she had) a prostitute, who was beaten by her boyfriend, the crazed psycho, Kenneth (Peter O’ Meara). Tommy needs someone to care for, even though he cannot provide for himself. He has no money to keep the flat heated, provides a cot for his friend, Doc, and owes him money. But, Tommy is a big hearted fellow who cannot say “no”. Later,enabler Tommy feels Doc is “like a stone brick around my neck” and is resentful. Tommy is instantly smitten with Aimee. There’s the rub. Uncle Maurice can tell Aimee spells trouble. “You bring a whore under my roof.” “Evil has no meaning”. Will that prediction come true?
It is the baggage that comes with Aimee, the good looking but crazed psychopath, Kenneth that will undo Tommy’s cluttered world and create turmoil. Kenneth Meara’s Peter was so broadly played that at times his Kenneth was unbelievable.
It all sounds dark, doesn’t it? But there were light hearted moments of warmth and laughter. It was as if McPherson had dappled a dark canvas with splashes of a quick-silver, gossamer light. There was also a profound humanity to the characters. And there were some wonderful lines that Maurice said to Tommy that indicated the depth of his love. Maurice wonders “What happened to all the sweetness that we had?” These elements make Conner McPherson’s writing unique.
The play dipped into a red pool of violence, but these scenes were oddly, almost “campy”. There was a violence designer, but the violence did not seem real. Our audience giggled in those places opening night. Kenneth (Peter O’ Meara) growled and made strange sounds, and it was over-the-top and disconcerting. Had the scenes been depicted as real, would the play have been too dark? Something just did not ring true in the two scenes of violence. I found myself fearing the violence and then tittering.
As he strings up Christmas lights, Doc tells Tommy he cannot save everybody. He explains his philosophy of the black hole. It is when “a star dies and collapses into itself and gets sucked in.” “Heaven is you die, and everything clicks into space and off you are”.
What does it mean? Are Uncle Maurice’s predictions about Aimee true? Does Tommy stay with Aimee? Will he give up all for her? What will happen to Doc who depends on Tommy? You will have to see McPherson’s play, “This Night Alive” for yourself. It is about needing someone, love, loneliness, friendship, and human frailty. Yes, there are flaws in this production, but despite the flaws, there was a simple beauty to the poetic story telling that marks Conner McPherson’s plays. I don’t know if the flaws were the playwrights, the actors or the directors. But, ultimately, it is the director who has the overview and reigns all in. The flaws did get my attention, but there still were moments of enjoyment in this play. It does cause one to think about the human condition. That is good play does, it stimulates thought.
“The Night Alive” at the Geffen Playhouse at 10886 Le Conte Ave , Los Angeles 90024 runs through March 15th. For show times and tickets, call 310-208-5454 or go on line to www.geffenplayhouse.com
Audrey Linden is a writer, actress and singer. She can be seen in a long-running “Associated Tax Resolution” commercial, two “Little Caesars” spots, a “Teva International Pharmaceutical” short, Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels,” “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” VHS “Tough Love 2,” “Wendy’s” , “Shimmer” commercial, Spike T V, the current Hillary Duff music video, etc.
Audrey teaches ON CAMERA COMMERCIAL and IMPROV COMEDY WORKSHOPS through the City of Beverly Hills. To register, call 310-285-6850. Her classes are held at 241 Moreno Dr. B.H. 90212. Her next ON CAMERA class starts in Spring. Early enrollment is advised as class fills with 12 students. For more information, contact Audrey at email@example.com On line registration is at www.beverlyhills.org/bhregonline Questions, email Audrey