Thursday, November 13, 2014

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' Beguiles but Doesn't Quite Burn -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Night Alive
a recent play by Conor McPherson
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 16

I first came to know of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson when I saw his 2000 play Dublin Carol in--aptly--Dublin (at the famed Gate Theatre) in October 2000.

It was one of the first plays I had seen of my own volition (i.e. not in school) by anyone, and perhaps enhanced by the novelty of the setting, I remember really liking it.

Not long thereafter, I made a point of seeing McPherson's The Weir at Steppenwolf, and also enjoyed it considerably.

Though my overall awareness was rather limited at the time--and I wasn't penning reviews--I imagine I would have referenced McPherson as the world's best young playwright. (He's still just 43.)

In these intervening years, the writer's works have garnered greater renown on Broadway, but though both Shining City and The Seafarer had their merits--I saw them at Goodman and Steppenwolf, respectively, along with another production of Dublin Carol at the latter--I wasn't as wowed as I would have liked.

The same goes for The Night Alive, playing at Steppenwolf through this Sunday. I liked it, but didn't love it. It was a good play, well-done with an excellent cast and a terrific set design by Todd Rosenthal, but it just didn't strike me as great.

So while McPherson would likely still be on a shortlist of top contemporary playwrights, in the category of current dramatic Irish Wunkerkinds--I only know of two--I now rather prefer Martin McDonagh. (I recently saw and reviewed his The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but have seen it and several other works previously.)

Nonetheless, The Night Alive certainly has--in several aspects--the earmarks of a highly talented writer, including successfully interpolating a variety of tones and themes.

The play is at both comedic and dramatic, part morality tale, part suspense thriller, part slice-of-life.

It revolves around a somewhat bedraggled middle-aged divorcee named Tommy--played perfectly at Steppenwolf by the always fantastic Francis Guinan--who lives with his Uncle Maurice (the great cinematic character actor, M. Emmet Walsh).

As the play opens, Tommy brings home a beaten-up woman named Aimee (the appealing Helen Sadler, who was also very good earlier this year in Tribes at the same venue).

The other primary character is Doc, a slightly addled friend of Tommy's who helps him in his vocation of buying & selling odd lots. Tim Hopper, a Steppenwolf Ensemble member who I wish appeared more regularly, is really terrific in the role.

Although anyone reading this only has a few days to get to this run, and I don't quite insist upon it--though Steppenwolf's wonderful $20 day-of-show discount tickets are more than worth the acting and scenery alone--I'll defer to my own preference to know as little as possible about storyline specifics.

So without me saying much more, The Night Alive spins heavily on Aimee's past, Tommy's less overtly benevolent relationship with his own (unseen) daughter of similar age and the grumbling interactions of the three men.

I don't think it's giving away the store to say the narrative has something of a transformative nature--though it took a post-show discussion for me to grasp the possible circumstances of the final scene--and whether scripted or the choice of Rosenthal and director Henry Wishcamper, I enjoyed the sly metaphor of The Great Escape movie poster decorating Tommy's home.

Also fun is the great use of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," serving to reiterate the uplift a marvelous song can bring, even amidst rather enigmatic times.

Over 100 minutes, The Night Alive is never hard to watch nor focus on, itself a testament to McPherson's
considerable gifts.

But though I was sufficiently satisfied on the surface level to justify @@@@ (out of 5), I just didn't sense enough in the script itself that was particularly profound or brilliant.

If you can get to Steppenwolf this weekend for $20 or even a bit more, it definitely won't be to your detriment to see The Night Alive.

But if you don't, it's not hard to imagine a better play bringing another evening even more to life.

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