In a recent interview with American Theatre, Conor McPherson says that he fleetingly imagined a second part of his new work, The Night Alive, “set in Heaven, or Purgatory. … At a certain point, God was going to come and explain everything.” In the play, there is some talk of time waves, the afterlife, death and black holes, but no supernatural visitations. That’s because McPherson buried all cosmic elements. Still, ghostly echoes distantly reverberate.
Although the Irish dramatist has peppered previous work with vampires (St. Nicholas), ghosts (Shining City) and Satan himself (The Seafarer), this time he keeps the metaphysics on the margins. On paper, The Night Alive is a gritty, realistic tale that begins with Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) coming to the aid of Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), a young woman whose nose has been bashed by her boyfriend. Tommy brings Aimee home to his filthy, littered room, the first floor of an Edwardian building owned and also inhabited by disapproving Uncle Maurice (Jim Norton). Aimee crashes there for a bit and gets to know Tommy’s business associate, Doc (Michael McElhatton), a moony fellow who helps with odd jobs. Doc tells Tommy that the girl is known in town as a prostitute and indeed, she gives Tommy manual relief for cash. Violent conflict enters the picture in the form of Kenneth (Brian Gleeson), Aimee’s psychotic boyfriend. Lives are smashed up and then reassembled. By the end there’s a note of tentative hope. Sounds like an ordinary tale of lonely losers tangled up in each other’s messy lives.
But there’s more to it, a mystical chord that twangs underneath the seriocomic banter and spurts of violence. You detect the faintest sense of spiritual allegory: Tommy is a soul in limbo, inhabiting a transitory, hermitic space. Aimee comes into his life as a fallen angel pursued by a harrowing demon (her vicious boyfriend). Doc is Tommy’s fellow traveler, a sort of holy fool who must be protected from the world. And Maurice, who lives on the floor above and pounds on it when Tommy and his friends get too rowdy, could be construed as an angry, patriarchal deity. What this adds up to is too delicate to identify with total surety, but McPherson is clearly exploring states of damnation and salvation.
This may sound like critical overreach, but just look at Soutra Gilmour’s set. Stage right are high double doors that lead to a balcony overlooking a garden. The doors are partly made of colored glass, and between light shining through and latticed shadows of trees, they look very much like stained glass windows in a church. Stage left is a long, dark corridor that leads past the audience to the rest of Maurice’s house. With subtle design choices, McPherson and his collaborators transform the Atlantic Theater Company into a religious zone, a place of spiritual transit. Certainly the final scene will leave you wondering if, at some point, we left the earthly plane.
None of this highfaluting conjecture comes out in the performances, which are all grounded, warm and fully realized. Hinds shuffles around his messy kingdom like a poorly groomed Irish wolfhound, maintaining a cheery dignity through it all. McElhatton takes a familiar type – the softheaded sidekick – and also finds pockets of grace. Watching Dunne soften and sweeten under Tommy’s ministrations is a joy. And watching Gleeson stalk Doc is a terror. Finally, Norton adds yet another indelible portrait of dissolution and heartbreak to his large store of McPherson elder figures. Each of these fine actors establishes, quickly and expertly, who they are.
It’s their world that’s mysterious. The beauty of McPherson’s writing is a peripheral, shimmery weirdness, the tug at your sleeve of something so otherworldly, you’re too scared to turn around and look. The Night Alive is a spellbinding and absolutely gorgeous new play by one of the true poets of the theater.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.