A Proper Haunting: ‘The Night Alive’

Tommy (Rod Brogan) tells Aimee (Hayley Nielsen) he sees a light at the end of the tunnel but the name of their romance is Two Trains Wrecking.

Tommy (Rod Brogan) tells Aimee (Hayley Nielsen) he sees a light at the end of the tunnel, but the name of their romance is Two Trains Wrecking.

People who have seen The Night Alive at City Theatre will tell you it’s funny and touching, which it is. You’ll hear that the actors are good, which they are. But above all, The Night Alive is a fitting play for the Halloween season. You may find it more haunting than any horror movie, even though it has no marauding zombies, spawns of Satan, or other such supernatural terrors.

This latest work by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a dark, working-class comedy. The setting is vintage kitchen-sink realism—a cluttered apartment in one of Dublin’s dodgier districts—and the story brings together an odd bunch of characters who are comically (and tragically) not up to the lives they’re trying to lead. They dream big but only manage to live small. They go looking for love—and money and meaning—in all the wrong places, using the wrong search algorithms.

Anatomy of a Muddle

Tommy, the apartment dweller, is a middle-aged jack of menial trades who cleans and fixes things for other folks while his personal affairs remain a mess. The muddle deepens one night when he tries to play Good Samaritan, bringing home a young woman named Aimee whom he finds beaten bloody on the sidewalk. She turns out to be a shoplifter and prostitute who nonetheless maintains a certain moral standard: For 40 Euros (about 45 American dollars), Aimee won’t give you her body, but she’ll give you a hand.

Comic irony awaits when the goodhearted handyman takes this troubled handywoman under his roof, because the safe and sane haven he’s offered her includes only a relative form of sanity. Tommy’s life is a multi-ring circus revolving around his best buddy and coworker, Doc, an energetic spark-plug of a guy whose sparks seem to come from crossed wires in his brain.

Doc keeps a notebook of mystical musings and quasi-scientific insights that he hopes will unlock the secrets of the universe. Here, for instance, is a discourse Doc delivers to the bewildered Aimee:

“There was a time when no one knew what air was. No one understood that hearing things was just our perception of sound waves. So I’m saying, ‘What about time waves?’ … The day will come when we understand what time is! And then we can perceive, you know, time waves. Waves in time. Vibrations from another time…”

Thug alert: Kenneth (Brendan Griffin, L) is looking for happiness and he thinks Doc (Ciarán Byrne) knows where it's hidden.

Thug alert: Kenneth (Brendan Griffin, L) is looking for happiness, and he thinks Doc (Ciarán Byrne) knows where it’s hidden.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking and trouble is brewing. Aimee got her bloody face from a thuggish boyfriend, who’s bound to come looking for her. This sinister dude arrives on a wave of bad vibrations, exuding menace, then proves to be the worst type of thug a person can meet: one who doesn’t even know how to do wrong and get it right, who fancies himself a criminal mastermind but is just a bully in a china shop, wreaking havoc without gain.

And to top things off, the circus has a ringmaster. Tommy’s landlord—who is also his elderly uncle and lives upstairs—descends at inopportune moments, like Marley’s ghost, cackling at the bedlam and urging sinners to repent while he rattles the chains of his own misspent life. One couldn’t ask for more.

Tick-Tock

What makes The Night Alive tick is the constant, repeated alternating between dreadful stuff and absurdity. Sitting in the audience, I felt myself feeling for the characters, inwardly rooting for them to do the right thing or to catch a break (both of which happen from time to time)—and that’s a necessary ingredient to start with. A play doesn’t play well unless you care about the people in it, and these people are care-able. They’re earnest strivers, despite the unlucky hands they’ve been dealt and how poorly they play them. Even Kenneth, the lovelorn thug who wants his dolly back, could conceivably win a bit of our sympathy if he’d turn over a new leaf, or at least go away quietly.

Maurice the shadow man (Noble Shropshire) meditates. Not shown: the bottle of whiskey that will get him wigglin'.

Maurice the shadow man (Noble Shropshire) meditates. Not shown: the bottle of whiskey that will get him wigglin’.

But every turn that these people make gets boxed off by their own limitations—or by the limitations of the all-too-real universe—with results that range from the truly tragic to farcical: Oh, look, Aimee has brought Tommy a present from the store! Oh, my, it’s a pair of neon orange running shoes! In size 14, maybe the size for Shaquille O’Neal … and, uh, no, as soon as he asks it, Tommy understands that Aimee didn’t get a sales receipt.

Just as the cranky old landlord, Maurice, understands once per year that no matter how many annual memorial services he arranges at the church for his deceased wife, they aren’t going to wash away the guilt he feels at the careless mistake on his part that led to her death … and he can’t get a re-do because time flows only in one direction.

Back and forth, the play switches. On the night I went, I could hear the audience around me roaring with laughter at one moment, then dead silent (with only the telltale sniffling sound that comes when someone’s tears are welling) at moments like Maurice’s raging outburst of grief.

On What’s Haunting and What’s Funny

All very interesting, you may say, but what’s so haunting about The Night Alive? The answer is: It’s the sense of no-exit-ness that builds throughout the play. The terrors of reality—the toll of the ever-present past, the dread of the next blow to come, the pain of loss and of realizing that your best hopes and your dear life itself are liable to wind up being screamingly irrelevant—those terrors are, to me at least, more chilling than any phantasmagoria conjured up with special effects on a movie screen. And those real boogie monsters are on full display in The Night Alive.

As for the dark humor, let’s be sure we have one thing clear. There are two kinds of dark humor. One is the kind that makes fun of such serious matters as death, a classic example being the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, with rows of crucified wretches singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” That’s not the kind that predominates in The Night Alive.

The people in McPherson’s play do not think death is funny. When it comes—and whether it comes unexpectedly from a sudden misstep or follows inevitably from the flawed patterns of a lifetime—it’s no joke. The dark humor here lies strewn amid the inanity and triviality that accompany the seriousness. After one grim and dismaying series of events the following exchange occurs:

“Does anyone want a cup of coffee?” “What kind of coffee?” “Instant.” “Oh, instant, yeah.”

Believe it or not, when I attended, that was the biggest laugh line in the play. Maybe you just have to be there.

 Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive is directed for City Theatre by Tracy Brigden. Rod Brogan as Tommy, Hayley Nielsen as Aimee, Brendan Griffin as the slimy Kenneth, and Noble Shropshire as Maurice are all really good. One might say that Ciarán Byrne as Doc steals the show, but his pockets have been searched, and he’s innocent.

Through Nov. 1 at 1300 Bingham St., South Side. For showtimes and tickets, visit City Theatre or call 412-431-CITY.

Photos by Kristi Jan Hoover

Mike Vargo, a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, covers theater for Entertainment Central.