At one point in Conor'McPherson's THE NIGHT ALIVE, the characters riff on the phrase, "What's going on?" Their lives seem chaotic, incomprehensible. Connections seem almost impossible.
Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) lives in a messy Dublin flat, an objective correlative for his messy life. He has left his wife and children and lives from hand to mouth, using his van to help clear properties and move junk. Tommy seems to be a magnet for human detritus. Doc (Michael McElhatton), his sometime business partner, who keeps appearing after being thrown out of his sister's house, seems incapable of taking care of himself. When Tommy goes out for a bag of chips, he returns with Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who has just been beaten up by her boyfriend, Kenny (Brian Gleeson). Aimee also seems desperately needy. Kenny seems to be an agent of chaos, unable to keep his thoughts in order and lashing out against anyone who comes within his orbit. Maurice (Jim Norton), Tommy's uncle and landlord is one moment furious at the disorder in Tommy's flat and his life but at another moment a raging, disorderly drunk. In a series of scenes that take place over a few weeks, these characters intersect, separate, then intersect again. Tommy falls in love with Aimee, who sells hand jobs for forty Euros, but won't engage in any other form of sex. That's enough intimacy for Tommy, who can deal with the family he left via a bluetooth device, but can't deal with seeing them. Some connections are shockingly violent. McPherson has a bleak vision of the possibilities of human relationships. One can't help but be reminded of Eugene O'Neill, though McPherson is a far better writer. Unlike O'Neill, he lets his audience come to their own understanding of the world he creates. The play sounds bleak, but it's very funny at moments and deeply moving. At times we're reminded of Pinter, but the menace here is far more explicit. McPherson has a poet's sensibility. His metaphors are vivid, but also subtle. His plays are secular, but there's always a sense of something spiritual in the background. I couldn't help but think of the term "grace" while watching this. These characters are looking for something transcendent in a frightening world of planets spinning at the edge of a black hole. Why else end the play with preparations for Christmas? There's always a supernatural element to McPherson's plays, whether ghosts or the devil. Here the supernatural is hinted act. If there's any weakness to the play it is because McPherson is better at writing men than women. Aimee is much more what men project upon her than a three-dimensional character. Her violent boyfriend Kenneth seems to be more symbol and plot device than human being until he opens up in his final scene on stage and we see the pain of his madness.
McPherson has directed the production himself (an import from London's Donmar Warehouse). It's a beautiful production, perfectly staged and paced. The cast is uniformly excellent. I have seen Ciaran Hinds a lot on stage and screen over the past twenty-plus years and often find him a mannered, one-not actor. He's anything but here, fully inhabiting the awkward, confused Tommy. Hinds and his colleagues comprise an ensemble cast that makes one fully believe in these characters. They're far from perfect, but they all have their dignity. This is a must see theatrical event.
THE NIGHT ALIVE. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theatre. January 11, 2014.