Conor McPherson is a poet of the lowly and the mundane. The problematic screw-up who is a secondary character in other plays takes center stage in McPherson’s work, an exploration tinged not with forgiveness or apology, rather with compassion and empathy.
McPherson’s newest work, The Night Alive, receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company in a production which originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse, picks up all the themes that have made him so admired as a playwright. With unromanticized compassion, The Night Alive looks at the collision of lives in disarray searching not so much for order as for some sense of getting by.
Ciaran Hinds’ Tommy is divorced, in his fifties, and living in a ramshackle one-room Dublin apartment on the bottom floor of a house owned by his uncle Maurice (Jim Norton), who lives upstairs in perpetual disgust and disappointment at Tommy’s failures. Tommy works odd jobs with his friend Doc (Michael McElhatton), and does his best to deal with his ex-wife and teenaged children, but nothing in life seems to go his way.
As the play opens, Tommy returns to his apartment holding a jacket over the bloody nose of Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), a woman he has just met in the act of comforting her after she was hit by her male companion. Tommy brings her back to his place, helps her get cleaned up, offers her tea, and offers her the bed to sleep in: that is, he sees a crisis and responds as best he can to help. This action seems distinctive of this character. He does not have much money or work, but he keeps Doc on as an assistant for pay; he has little idea how best to be a father to his teenaged children, but he seems to respond to their needs however he can. But of course none of that brings Tommy any solace: his kids and ex-wife are still disappointed with him, Doc still has problems with which he looks to Tommy for help, Maurice still condescends to him at every turn, and circumstances make him the one guy who helps a woman in distress.
Like so many of McPherson’s protagonists, Tommy moves through life putting one foot in front of the other constantly unsure of where the next step should go. As problems arise, he reacts, as he does to the consequences of those reactions, taking on matters as they present themselves but without any grand or productive foresight. When his association with Aimee grows, causing problems both for himself and for those in his sphere, Tommy responds to each new crisis in whichever way seems best at the moment. As we might expect, he is neither ever entirely successful nor a complete failure: he progresses through the situation haltingly, one unsure step at a time.
The great beauty of The Night Alive resides in McPherson’s tendency to avoid grand theatricality and conflict. Taking on the show’s directorial duties as well, McPherson looks to the everyday troubles of his human subjects for his drama. Tommy’s particular troubles are heightened by the entrance into his life of Aimee and the mysterious stranger who shows up in her wake, but there’s a sense that if it wasn’t them complicating his life it would have been something else. His is a life in perpetual distress, and we watch as Tommy attempts to get over one hump knowing full well that there will be another obstacle waiting for him on the other side.
Fresh from his Broadway turn as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy, Hinds plays Tommy with a clear sense of distraught duty to the others in his life. As with Sharky in McPherson’s The Seafarer, it seems that life would be much simpler for Tommy if he could just discard all of his interpersonal commitments and turn himself into the selfish introvert that so many in his life seem to believe him to be. When he tries to do so, Hinds captures wonderfully the air of self-aware falsity emanating from Tommy: he knows as well as we do that he could abandon Aimee and Doc no more than he could his children. This is at once Tommy’s curse and his salvation. It is the liminal space between those two extremes that best defines the contours of McPherson’s theater.
Hinds’ excellent performance is matched throughout the rest of the cast, particularly by Dunne and McElhatton, the play’s other two damaged souls who refuse to yield fully to their troubles. The late-night scene during which Tommy, Doc, and Aimee escape for a few moments of revelry in dancing to Marvin Gaye captures best the spirit of The Night Alive. The three let themselves relax in a casual and funky dance around the apartment while “What’s Going On?” blasts on the stereo before the pounding of Maurice on the floor upstairs calls an abrupt halt to the proceedings. A moment of revelry and freedom halted all too soon by the demands of social conformity.