Stage Review: City Theatre’s ‘The Night Alive’ lively, fun and Irish to the core

October 22nd, 2015 / Posted in 2015-2016 season, Home Page Latest News, News & Press, Plays, The Night Alive

Ireland seems so close to home. Hey, even the Guinness we drink is brewed in Canada. But the fact is, Ireland is a foreign country with a culture and a sensibility different than, say, Dubuque, or even the South Side for that matter, although I’m leaving out the drinking tradition.

In American theater, playwrights such as Tracy Letts or Theresa Rebeck use their cardboard characters like sledgehammers to pound us over the head so we can’t help but get their message of dysfunction. The Irish do it differently, with subtlety and a kindness bordering on sweetness for their flawed, more human creations.

Conor McPherson is an example of this treatment for his lovable losers, usually found living in messy hovels that can’t sour their optimism. City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden staged Mr. McPherson’s “The Seafarer” in 2009 and returns this year with “The Night Alive” for her season opener.

Ms. Brigden takes the “invisible hand” approach, allowing the playwright’s lively, jokey dialogue to carry the play and avoiding showy blocking. The effect emphasizes the play’s theatricality and wry humor, which, while entertaining, distracts us from “The Night Alive’s” thin, unsatisfying nature.

Both “The Night Alive” and “The Seafarer” unfold in dumps filled with trash. This dump is the home of good-hearted Tommy, played by an earnest Rod Brogan. The 50-ish guy with the obligatory (it seems) broken marriage and estranged kids, scrapes by doing odd jobs with his odd companion, Doc (“short for Brian”), who’s a few shamrocks shy of a load. Ciaran Byrne plays him with the previously mentioned naive sweetness, and his clueless optimism is a large source of the play’s humor.

Tommy lives there with the sufferance of his aging uncle, Maurice, a respectable fellow whose Dublin home is pleasant, except for his nephew’s room, which exits into a backyard garden. Set designer Tony Ferrieri has crammed Tommy’s room with trash and dirty clothes, although there’s too much lath and not enough plaster for a space in Maurice’s house. Played by a gaunt Noble Shropshire, Maurice tries to keep an eye on Tommy’s affairs, but he’s given up hope that his lodger will be struck by a burning desire to clean.

The garden’s French doors are the portal in and out of the single set. The play begins when Tommy hustles a young woman whose face is covered by a jacket into his digs. This is Aimee, a prostitute in her 20s with a broken nose, brought home like a stray dog. Hayley Nielsen, who has appeared in earlier City productions, brings a hard-edged wariness to Tommy’s charity, which includes a space to stay.

Now, the McPherson universe starts to wind toward a resolution, we hope, for this forlorn quartet, but there’s a disturbance that sets this world spinning off its axis. Enter Kenneth, a wild-eyed, bearded Brendan Griffin. He is Aimee’s pimp or boyfriend, who slides through the French doors in search of her.There’s no sweetness in this lad, who beats the helpless Doc with a hammer, the first of two bloody scenes of violence.

The second forces Tommy to make a precipitous decision, telegraphed early on by a poster of Finland on his wall. This plan involves Aimee, who has good reason to go on the lam, but would leave Doc homeless and friendless.

Tommy would appear to be the center of “The Night Alive,” but it’s really Doc who captures our sympathy, with his intuitive understanding of the universe, including black holes. Mr. Byrne’s performance rises above the other cast members, both physically and emotionally, and it’s the image of him embracing himself with happiness that sticks with us.

However, “The Night Alive” ends with a false moment that could have been the playwright’s attempt to inject a spiritual presence to a brief history of time in a Dublin room reeking of the mundane and broken. It feels tacked on, so that even Doc’s cheery stringing of Christmas lights a month before the holiday can’t fill in the dots to bring the play full circle.

‘The Night Alive’

Where: City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

When: Through Nov. 1. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 1 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays (1 p.m. only on Oct. 28); 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $36-$61 (check website for under 30 discounts); or 412-431-CITY (2489).

Bob Hoover is a retired Post-Gazette book editor and writer.