“Evil has no meaning,” there is an existential core in Conor McPherson’s new play The Night Alive, playing now through March 15 at the Geffen Playhouse.
Sometimes bad things just happen. The overly simplistic view of the state of humanity posed in this bleakly funny, darkly insightful tale of misfortune is perhaps too sophomoric a thought for the world of Mr. McPherson’s imagination, and so maybe needs to be looked at as a red herring, leading us away from the truth. The observation of meaningless evil comes from Maurice (Denis Arndt), a somewhat stuffy older gentleman who rents out a room in his house to Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor), a down-on-his-luck bloke who, at the start of the play, has brought home Aimee (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), covered in blood.
Tommy saved her from a brutal attack. The attacker was her ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Peter O’Meara), a dark and menacing figure who appears as more of a device than a person, but to solid effect. Aimee and Tommy seem to be ships serendipitously passing in the night, and they find comfort in each other. Tommy’s sometime roommate and co-worker Doc (Dan Donohue) also shows up. After his sister has kicked him out again, he is left with nowhere to sleep for the night. Doc is, for lack of a better word, slow. In fact, Tommy describes him as being five to ten seconds behind. He’s literally slow. Of course, this nicely sets up the dramatic irony of Tommy’s wisdom, but it also serves to evoke deeper empathy for Tommy when he’s confronted with the likes of Kenneth.
The play, like a tangled web, uses all five of these characters to make the small world of Tommy’s flat, seem to be a universe all its own. A self-sustaining existence that relies on the movement of all of its participants in order to function at all. It’s a kind of purgatory, where the stand-still creatures inhabiting it are waiting anxiously for whatever is coming next. So when there is a tear in the fabric, the universe is under threat of collapse, and chaos ensues.
This production goes out of its way to uphold the strictest tenets of naturalism. From the set, which was exquisitely designed by Takeshi Kata, to David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes, which were all suitably lived-in, blue-collar pieces that highlighted the working class stature of the characters. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi captures time of day almost poetically, and when a scene is lit by only the small yellow glow of a lamp, there’s an intimacy artificially, but evocatively manifest. The technical elements of this production are all right on the money.
Director Randall Arney also uses a naturalist approach, to the play’s good fortune, with the exception of a few moments where the attempted reality misses the mark. The last scene that Kenneth is in, for example, elicited a few chuckles where it probably didn’t want them. The scene between Tommy and Kenneth, on the other hand, was deftly crafted and executed to a sea of gasps. The last few moments of that scene, which take place in the offstage bathroom are amazing.
The much discussed ending of the play, which I will not divulge, is a bit too brief. The weight of the moment doesn’t really have time to land. This is clearly deliberate, in order to have a jarring effect, but it’s hard to know if that effect couldn’t have been more effective.
The production is ultimately successful, and in no small part due to the performances. Paul Vincent O’Connor perfectly embodies downtrodden Tommy. His zest for life and love is hanging on a thin thread, and he incorporates all the sorrow, hope, and pain that life has racked up for him through his vividly expressive face. He’s an easy hero to follow. Fiona O’Shaughnessy is equally compelling. Her Aimee is sharply flawed but sweetly redeemable. Denis Arndt as Maurice and Peter O’Meara as Kenneth give strong performances, adding the right complexity, humor, and in one instance from Mr. O’Meara, seriously creepy vibes needed to get the most from every moment. As Doc, Dan Donohue is superb. He is endearing and fascinating to watch. It is a committed and utterly grounded performance of an everyday man. There’s no flash, and there is no need for any. He’s compelling because he’s real.
Conor McPherson, known for incorporating supernatural elements in his plays, is maybe working on a different level here. It’s perhaps a magical realism of a different sort. The questions of existence, the speeches about life and death, about black holes and time itself are all symbolic gestures on Mr. McPherson’s behalf as keys into his text, perhaps letting us know that something else is going on here. The exploration of thematic textures through contradiction, such as finding meaning in a cruel world where human connection is perhaps something more than mere happenstance, can only really exist in the universe of this play. A purgatory. A universe that perhaps lives somewhere in the middle of life and death, somewhere between what is real and what is imagined. And that might be nothing more than the magic of theater.
The Night Alive
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by Randall Arney
Opening Night: Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Closing Night: Sunday, March 15, 2015
Ticket prices are currently $39 – $79 are and are available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. Fees may apply.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024