Superb performances, a brilliant production design, plenty of chuckles (with a few gasps thrown in for good measure), and characters as weirdly idiosyncratic as any I’ve seen onstage spark the Geffen Playhouse’s West Coast Premiere of Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive. As to whether the play itself is worthy of the unqualified superlatives that out-of-town critics have showered upon McPherson’s oh-so quirky comedy, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, a feast for audience members’ eyes while awaiting lights-up, is a downright magnificent display of the clutter bordering on filth that can accumulate in just one room of a hundred-plus-year-old Dublin residence when its occupant is a man like Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor), one of those lifelong losers that people McPherson’s plays.
How much of a loser are we talking about here? Well, to start with, the 50ish Tommy has not only failed at marriage, he leaves a lot to be desired as a father as well, there being little or no contact between Da and his two teenage children, and Tommy’s only got his Dublin digs thanks to the relative generosity the man who raised him, his drunken Uncle Maurice (Denis Arndt), who lives upstairs and lets his presence be known by banging on Tommy’s ceiling at the slightest bit of noise down below. Heck, Tommy even has to drop coins into a wall-mounted meter to heat the place (though truth be told, he’s figured out a way to beat the system).
Tommy’s best chum, if you can call him that, is his occasional odd-jobs assistant Doc (Dan Donohue), a dim-witted but endearing younger man whose sister’s live-in boyfriend has once again sent him in search of temporary lodgings under his workmate’s roof.
Were things as they normally are this evening, Tommy would likely have no problem letting Doc crash at his place, but tonight’s circumstances are far from ordinary.
Only minutes before Doc’s arrival, Tommy has returned home with a battered, bloody, and beautiful stranger in tow, the feisty, foul-mouthed, and fetching Aimee (Fiona O’Shaugnessy), whose arrival in Tommy’s life is about to turn things upside down and inside out.
I’ve rarely seen an odder collection of characters than the ones playwright McPherson has assembled here, and there’s not a one of them I’d care to spend even a minute with in real life. (Well, maybe with Doc, since actor Donohue is pretty darned appealing in the role.)
Still, if there’s anything to be said for live theater, it’s that it offers audiences the opportunity to meet and get to know folks they’d not normally encounter (or want to encounter), and Tommy and company’s quirks are amusing—and yet strangely real—enough to provoke chuckles and occasional laughs throughout.
As for the aforementioned gasps, those are prompted by the arrival of tough guy Kenneth (Peter O’Meara), whose initially innocuous face-to-face with Doc produces unexpectedly horrific (and more than a tad credibility-stretching) consequences.
There are certainly plenty of reasons to smile (if not guffaw) as McPherson’s characters do and say their quirky things. Much comedy is mined from a pair of size fourteen gym shoes that fit Tommy and Doc about as well as Bozo’s footwear would. (No, a bit of toilet paper stuffed in the toe does not make them suitable for wearing.) There’s also the matter of Doc’s name, short for … wait for this … Brian. (When asked if “Bri” might have made more sense, Doc replies—and quite accurately when you think about it—that “Bri” might even take more time than “Brian” to say.)
Others have found considerable profundity in The Night Alive’s more existential aspects. I must confess that Doc’s monolog on black holes in the universe whooshed right past me, and a fellow audience member’s suggestion that the last scene takes place after a life-altering event not shown onstage, well, if that’s actually the case, it whooshed by me even faster.
Still, even those like this reviewer who don’t ooh and aah over The Night Alive’s purported depth, I found myself consistently entertained, occasionally surprised, and generally quite impressed at how much McPherson’s bizarre bunch of characters held my attention and interest.
Under Randall Arney’s assured direction, all five actors (a mix of Irish and Americans, though you’d hardly guess which is which, credit shared with dialect coach Paul Wager), deliver absolutely splendid performances.
Not surprisingly, the Geffen Playhouse design team is as world-class as they get, not just Kata’s amazing set but David Kay Mickelsen’s pitch-perfect (and occasionally quite droll) costumes, Daniel Ionazzi’s evocative lighting, and sound designer/composer Richard Woodbury’s jazzy musical underscoring. Violence designer Ned Mochel deserves top marks too, as you will see.
Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Young Ji is stage manager and Elizabeth A. Brohm is assistant stage manager.
Audience reaction at press night curtain calls was enthusiastic, but not overwhelmingly so, leading me to believe that more than a few shared my enjoyment rather than the fervor of those whose enthusiasm for McPherson’s latest has been previously expressed in print. Regardless of which camp you fall into, I’m guessing you’ll be keeping the night alive with post-performance discussion. If only for that, The Night Alive is worth checking out.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
February 12, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont