Monday, October 19, 2015

City Theatre’s "The Night Alive" Taps Into Irish Story-Telling Tradition

(L-R): Rod Brogan, Hayley Nielsen, and Ciaran Byrne in THE NIGHT ALIVE by Conor McPherson
Photo Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover
Most people are aware of the line made popular by the late Yogi Berra that "It ain’t over till it’s over." But in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s dark comedy "The Night Alive," it’s not over even when it’s over.
At the end of the City Theatre’s opening night presentation, I felt comfortable that I got the last scene - even though I wasn’t 100 percent sure it really was the last scene. It ended just like the series of previous set of episodes in a total stage blackout and could have easily segued comfortably - and extended the plot - further into the night.
But when the lights came back up and the actors took their bows, my interpretation of what I just saw solidified in my mind. That is until my theater companion came up with a startling but equally plausible explanation.
Seeking validation of my own version, I canvassed about ten people who stayed for the after theater party and got a divided consensus. What made it even more fascinating is, when I asked the production’s "directing observer," Vince Ventura, for his opinion, he came up with an even more interesting construction, one he said that came out of a previous staging of the play at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.
I was quite frustrated that I’d missed the alternate explanations and had settled for the easy first  conclusion. The post-play canvassing of the audience brought to mind the tale of the three blind men who held on to different parts of an elephant. The one who held the tail thought it a rope; the one the leg, a tree trunk, the one the ear, a hand fan.
So much for the fun of deciphering a multi-faceted ending by a stealthy playwright. Now that we’ve considered the end, how about the beginning? And that would be set designer, Tony Ferrari’s apt mise-en-scene creation of a down-and-out Dubliner’s shabby living quarters - a mix of dingy furniture and miscellaneous items cluttered about that would probably fetch no more than a dollar each at a neighborhood yard sale.
The single set is initially animated by Tommy (Rod Brogan), a divorcee who tries to eke out a living doing odd jobs with the aid of a presumably  aging van, and Aimee (Hayley Nielsen), a woman of ill repute who is showing all the bloody signs of having been battered by her beau.
You might wonder about the motivation behind Tommy’s rescue of the waif and his offer to recuperate in his domicile. My take is that he’s a Good Samaritan with honest intentions and nothing to steal except for a hidden cache of money secreted away under a floorboard. In fact, Brogan’s Tommy is a saintly figure, warm-hearted and benign, with a halo that doesn’t slip even once during the course of the evening.
Nielsen’s portrayal is also palatably unique. She shuns the cliched aura of a toughened, street-worn, brassy hooker and takes a softer, more docile approach to the role. As the two misfits try to get to know one another, the story line undulates with considerable humor, and is made even more colorful with the entrance of Doc (Ciaran Byrne), Tommy’s odd job assistant who’s devoted to his partner but somewhat weak in the head. The two reminded me a bit of the relationship between the two main characters in Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men," though the comparison is somewhat feeble in that Doc is much more mentally capable than the novel’s counterpart.
The delightful Noble Shropshire stokes the comedic coals even more with his crusty, cranky cantankerous rendition of Maurice, Tommy’s uncle and landlord who lives directly above his nephew’s dank dwelling.
Just when you settle in for an evening of light-hearted enjoyment, McPherson abruptly jolts the senses with the entrance of the menacing Kenneth, Aimee’s psychopathic swain, played convincingly by Brendan Griffin, whose good looks belie the terror-inducing, troubled soul that lies just beneath the surface. As a vehicle for the playwright’s emphasis on just how fragile and tenuous the human condition really is, Griffin as Kenneth is a visceral catalyst capable of sparking flares of frightening realism
City Theatre’s artistic director Tracy Brigden helms this quintet of superlative actors as director of the opening work of the theater’s 41st season. It’s a wise start to a promising season. And then there’s that provocative ending.
"The Night Alive" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through November 1. For tickets, phone 412-431-CITY (2489) or visit website
Note: City Theatre is staging a benefit dinner at the Casbah Restaurant, 229 S. Highland Avenue in Shadyside from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22. The five course meal with wine pairings will be prepared by chef Eli Wahl, costs $125 per person and will be held on Casbah’s lower level, which has no elevator service. For reservations, phone Dianne Duursma at 412-431-4400, ext. 278.

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