“You can’t save everybody,” bemoans Tommy – in what is essentially a desperate plea that forms the heart of Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive – now reigning luminous at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) is one of the lost souls who populate this play’s dreamy universe and the one around whose orbit the other characters revolve. But despite Tommy’s recognition of the futility of a savior’s mission, it doesn’t keep him from trying. These efforts include enabling Doc (Michael McElhatto), a hapless misfit who relies on Tommy for the odd jobs that give him little more than pocket change and his only grasp on adulthood – a tenuous one at best – to indulging his Uncle Maurice (Jim Norton) who’s become Tommy’s landlord as well as his self-appointed disapproving patriarch, a role which shores up Maurice’s determination to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But it’s Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) – an ominously detached young woman – who forms the centerpiece of Tommy’s codependent yearnings after he saves her from the fist of another man – an offstage event that serves as the play’s inciting incident. Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) – the fifth character in The Night Alive – is more sociopath than lost soul, fulfilling a role that seems to have become a staple of some Irish playwrights… though this psycho lacks the anachronistic tender attachments that make Martin McDonagh’s psychos so memorable. Instead, Kenneth may be the play’s weakness as it’s his entry into the story that triggers the main action of the play rather than it growing out of our central characters. Nonetheless, there’s enough drama and insight laced throughout the smaller events of the play to make it a journey well worth taking.
This American premiere of the Donmar Warehouse production transfers with the original cast and – as he did with the original production, the renowned playwright McPherson also directs. The benefit of a playwright directing his or her own work is that it can insure that the music of the language be fully realized. And The Night Alive is resplendently chorale. But the danger of the playwright/director is that the tools of the latter might be levied against the weaknesses of the former. Indeed, at times, the direction relies a bit too heavily on music to do some heavy lifting – from Marvin Gaye giving the characters a chance to express their unspoken attractions to a rich range of music that tells us what to feel as we move from one scene to the next. That aside, the play sings with vivid performances by an incredible cast, a use of light that eases you in and out of the passage of time and a set that keeps on giving right down to its poster of Finland which, like Tommy’s Life Magazine T-shirt, tells a thousand words.
Ciarán Hinds is magnificent as a wounded hulk of masculine power rendered stammeringly nervous around a girl he inexplicably fancies. Despite some manic blocking which has him perpetually rushing around as if competing in a reality TV race, Hinds’ soulful performance has a magnetic gravity that pulls all the players to him and the audience along with them. His performance alone is worth the trip to 336 West 20th.Michael McElhatton is deftly tragicomic as Doc, bringing nuance to a role that could be cliché in the hands of a lesser actor – that of the idiot savant musing about the nature of time, celestial events and God. Jim Norton, as Maurice, masterfully balances the power of a man whose life obeyed his expectations until his wife slipped on a patch of ice – with the fragility of old age and terror of its inevitable endgame. Caoilfhionn Dunne brings a sense of disconnection and the whiff of a painful past to the play’s ingénue, Aimee – and Brian Gleeson is absolutely terrifying as its heavy, Kenneth.
The Night Alive may be about finding grace in the darkness but it’s hardly sentimental. Instead, it’s a lyrical, even hopeful, story whose flawed characters ultimately rise to the challenges placed before them. Yes – it’s about salvation, even as it leaves you wondering at what cost…
The Night Alive – By Conor McPherson; directed by Conor McPherson
WITH: Caoilfhionn Dunne (Aimee), Brian Gleeson (Kenneth), Ciarán Hinds (Tommy), Michael McElhatton (Doc) and Jim Norton (Maurice).
Designed by Soutra Gilmour; lighting by Neil Austin; sound by Gregory Clarke; UK Casting, Alastair Coomer; Violence Consultant, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Mary Kathryn Flynt; Assistant Stage Manager, Patrick Wetzel. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company (Artistic Director, Neil Pepe; Managing Director, Jeffory Lawson). At Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Manhattan; Tickets available at 866-811-4111 or web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/928674.Through Sunday, January 26. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (no intermission).