Dallas — It’s almost too easy a target for a playwright: portraying a theater critic as a sort of monster, though a more metaphorical one than the play’s other more literal monsters. Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas is part fairy-tale, part-campfire scary story, with a hefty portion of the sort of blarney you’d expect from the drunk at the end of the bar intent on bending your ear with his life’s story. Given that this filmed production is nothing more or less than one man on a stage talking for ninety minutes straight, it’s a testament to both the magnetic performance of the play’s star, Undermain Theatre Artistic Director Bruce DuBose (who performed the piece for Undermain previously in 2001), and the talented direction of Blake Hackler, that the tale remains riveting throughout.
St. Nicholas spins a yarn about an unnamed Irish theater critic. Past his prime, unhappy at home and at work, and filled with loathing for himself and everyone around him, the critic becomes obsessed with a young actress who he follows to London in a drunken haze. There, after humiliating himself in front of the young woman, he meets an unnaturally charismatic vampire, and agrees to procure victims for him and the rest of his nest of bloodsuckers in exchange for room and board, and an infusion of vampiric charm. By play’s end, it’s a toss-up as to who’s the true vampire of the piece. A meditation on fear—of aging and loss of power, even of the loss of one’s humanity—certainly, but perhaps above all else, an examination of the power and the pleasure of a good story, well-told.
DuBose’s critic is splendidly gone to seed, a huckster who sees his own flaws clearly without ever seeking to truly correct them. In lesser hands, the character might feel like little more than middle-aged white male pontification with the bonus of a soothing Irish brogue (plaudits to dialect coach Anne Schilling). He’s his own sort of vampire, feeding off the talent and vitality of those around him during his younger days as a critic, with no real thoughts or opinions of his own. But DuBose manages to find the charm, and the pathos of the character without ever forgiving or forgetting his flaws. DuBose also portrays the few other characters of the piece—particularly Helen, the young actress the critic obsesses over, and some of her fellow actors, and William, the charming if dour vampire who seduces the critic—with specificity, but a light hand.
Director Hackler and Director of Photography Marc Rouse succeed in conveying a real sense of movement and urgency throughout the piece, which is particularly challenging for a play with as little actual action as this one. DuBose is, naturally, stationary for the vast majority of the piece, but movements to frame him from the side, or slightly above, keep things visually interesting, with only a few slightly corny moments. The stage feels nicely barren, abandoned, and the lighting and sound design (from Robert Winn, Rob Menzel, and Paul Semrad) work beautifully to convey the different spaces in which the critic finds himself (a raucous pub, a busy street, etc.).
Ignore the Christmas-y (and for this critic, as yet unexplained) title and enjoy this atmospheric tale from Undermain Theatre. After all, who doesn’t enjoy watching a critic get their comeuppance?
St. Nicholas streams through Oct. 25. To purchase tickets, go here.