Dallas — A man helps a bloody-faced girl into his dark, rented room that only a moment before held a silhouetted figure among its huddled messes. What feels like a tender thriller, if there is such a thing, turns slapstick momentarily as the coin-fed electric meter runs out and the darkness returns.
What’s going on?
It’s best not to take the measure of anything at Undermain Theatre too early. And that goes doubly for the regional premiere of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson.
You might think that someone is flicking channels as the tones flip from tense and mysterious to light and frivolous and then to brooding despair, but really it’s just director Dylan Key’s gentle hand allowing the playwright to dance through some sort of Irish collective unconscious. With Bruce DuBose anchoring the evening as Tommy, a middle-aged, down-and-out Dublin everyman, the wisps of want and why swirl by in this thoroughly watchable sitcom dream.
How otherworldly playwright McPherson wants to go isn’t clear until, at the end of Act I, he turns it sharply into a nightmare (to be fair, Elm street isn’t far away). Marcus Stimac is perfectly possessed here, really hammering the character home and sending the audience into a stunned intermission.
The plot is deceptively down to earth. Tommy lives in one room of the house of his Uncle Maurice (Gordon Fox). Having left his wife and teenage children, he survives on odd jobs with an even odder helper, Doc (Scott Latham). Tommy rescues Aimee (Katherine Bourne) from a bloke, Kenneth (Stimac), and allows her to kip on the camp bed. The Irish accents are thick and engaging except where they disappear altogether. Outside of the extraordinary tonal shifts and some creative wordplay this might pass as a grittier Agatha Christie evening, but the playwright has his hand on more cosmic strings.
It’s easy to discount Doc’s prattling, but you’d do so at your own peril. Introduced as intellectually lagging, he functions as a Stan Laurel spiritual savant, reminding the characters of the relative delicacy of this reality. As ballast to Doc, Maurice seems mired in the accumulated disappointments of a fully lived life. Maybe Doc doesn’t see things just for what they are, but Maurice sees them all-too clearly. These two opposing views on the ordinary orbit around the central couple of Tommy and Aimee. Given the circumstances surrounding them, it’s hard to see how they could work. Given the lyrical nature of the play, it’s hard not to hope they will.
And that’s the brilliance of the production: hope, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Crucial to the effort is the always-dependable DuBose whose Irish-tinged timbre alone is worth the ticket. To see him squirm in the face of Bourne’s black-eyed beauty is to witness the play in miniature. Adding an extra layer of entertainment is Latham as an almost too loveable Doc. When he describes his sister wanting to kick him out, it’s almost incomprehensible. Fox may struggle for the accent and some of the lines, but the depth of his Maurice’s end of life despair is incontestable. Truer words are rarely witnessed. Almost stealing the show, however, is Stimac as the manic maniac, Kenneth. His nimble wordplay, fueled by an otherworldly rage, is terrific, in the fullest sense of the word.
Robert Winn converts the pillared space into a cluttered but cozy space. Possessions surround the players, as tokens of the past, retained in vain faith of their utility. Steve Woods manages the lights of this dreary world with dim washes and practical lamps, keeping a few tricks up his sleeve. The subtlest designer at work here, though, is Claudia Stephens who contributes to the magic with a wave of the wand of fit and formality. Clothes make the man, after all.
What they make him (or her) is up to you. It may take you a few days to decide.
And you may decide to see it again.