Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.

Damon Kupper is at the center of this thing, playing Tommy, a middle-aged odd-jobs guy living amid an astonishment of trash in the Dublin house of his uncle Maurice (Del Lewis). He’s divorced, and the recipient of barking phone calls from his disapproving ex-wife, and his teen-age kids appear to pretty much despise him, but he’s – you know – trying. He listens to Marvin Gaye on the phonograph, and keeps his money in a tin under the floorboards, and his only real friend appears to be Doc (Michael O’Connell), a man of slow mind and mysterious revelations who enjoys stealing the turnips from Maurice’s garden and going out on odd jobs with Tommy, and is himself persona non grata at his sister’s house, where he’s overstayed his welcome. Doc sometimes sleeps over in Tommy’s room, when they need to go out early on a job, and this becomes a minor problem when Aimee (Christina Holtom), whom Tommy has rescued from a beating by her sadistic boyfriend, just sort of shows up and sticks around. Later the extremely nasty Kenneth (Rolland Walsh) shows up, swinging his fists and his attitude with equally derisive precision.

Things happen, and it would be frankly spoilsport to give them away. But at the heart of this play is a love story, the awkward attraction of Tommy and Aimee, which has more obstacles than a road trip to Finland without a passport. Make that two love stories, actually: there’s also Uncle Maurice’s love for his late wife, who has slipped on the ice and died, and whose loss settles slowly over Maurice’s life like a cloak of regret. And yet another: Maurice’s love for Tommy, which slips out like a surprise. And then, just because we’re on a roll and once it gets going love tends to overlap, maybe the deepest, most complex love story of them all, the relationship between Doc and Tommy.

Holtom and Kupper: sometimes, just joy. Photo: Owen Carey

Holtom and Kupper: sometimes, just joy. Photo: Owen Carey

Holtom, Lewis, and Walsh are more than fine in their roles: Walsh a lather of smug and thug; Lewis, touched with sorrow, teetering between respectability and simply losing it; Holtom as beat-down and anti-romantic as the bruises covering her legs and arms, but also somehow showing Aimee slowly waking from her foreshortened expectations, as if from a drugged sleep. The remarkable work, however, comes from Kupper and especially O’Connell, two Third Rail regulars who in this show simply become their characters. Kupper’s bravado, chatter, and determination to please everyone barely hide an escalating aching of the soul: his despair sinks so low that at one point, when Tommy’s at his ebb, I thought for a moment the play was coming to its bitter end. It did not, because in some deep place Tommy is a true believer, and desperation is not his final answer. O’Connell’s quiet and precisely devastating performance as Doc, the butt of jokes, confused but generous, funny in an embracing way, hunting to connect the pieces of a basic idea, barely able to carry out simple functions yet somehow also deep inside the mysteries of time and space and black holes, is astonishing: it doesn’t seem to be acting at all, though we know, of course, it is. It may well be the best work I’ve seen this fine and subtle actor do.

Scott Yarbrough, Third Rail’s artistic director, brings his typical care and spirit to his direction, which is keen toward both the musicality of the speech patterns (Stephanie Gaslin is voice and dialect coach) and the building of the characters’ relationships. Kudos, too, to Tal Sanders for his surprisingly expansive set, Kaye Blankenship for props that slip in and out of play like a sharp knife, Emily Horton for her just-right costumes, Kristeen Crosser for her typically sensitive lighting (she and Yarbrough know how to hold a moment to the most effective dramatic beat), and to sound designer Scott Thorson for some blues tracks that I could’ve listened to all night. Third Rail is performing The Night Alive in the little hothouse of CoHo Theatre, where the company sprang into being 10 years ago, and the compactness of the place seems just right for this slowly boiling show. Reach out and you might get scalded.

*

Third Rail’s production of The Night Alive continues through March 14 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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