Review: “The Night Alive” at San Jose Stage Company

Since the death of the great Brian Friel, there are two playwrights who might lay claim to the title of Ireland’s greatest living playwright. Those two are Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, a pair of writers who could not be more different in writing style if they were born two thousand years apart. While both write black comedies, McDonagh prefers to encourage the audience to laugh as his characters writhe in the filth of their lives, McPherson forces you into the lives of his characters, so that every laugh has a twinge of pain.

Pain is certainly the topic of choice in The Night Alive, McPherson’s latest, in which every one of the five characters that appear onstage at one point or another have been, by life, given lemons far too rotten to make lemonade. Concerning a 50-something loner by the name of Tommy, who lives in a rented room within his uncle’s house in Dublin due to his estrangement from his wife and children, the play begins on the night that Tommy saves Aimee from her physically abusive boyfriend Kenneth. He takes her to his extremely disorganized room for what is initially just a place to crash for the night, but what eventually becomes a several week long boarding arrangement, with Aimee slowly becoming ingrained in Tommy’s daily life. Also in the mix are Doc, Tommy’s slightly mentally impaired coworker and reluctant yet reliable friend, and Maurice, Tommy’s uncle and landlord, a perfect embodiment of old-fashioned drunken Irish stoicism.

It’s a rather conventional plot, and, until about the midway point, nothing particularly innovative happens in The Night Alive. But McPherson’s ear for the poetry of the spoken word combined with his ability to write subtle black humor elevates the material beyond its surface. The resulting effect is one of very strong pathos, the kind of play that will have you being powerfully affected by scenes of seeming unimportance. What happens about halfway through I will not spoil, but suffice to say that the play takes on a kind-of religious  ethos, one in in which you won’t be able to tail if your sorrow is being spoiled by your joy or vice-versa.

Fine though it is, The Night Alive is not McPherson’s best play. The supernatural element, which McPherson is rather famous for including in all of his plays, doesn’t feel as thought-through here as in his strongest works like The Weir, and he fails to say anything new, other than portraying his frequently unsung characters with the humanity they deserve, that hasn’t been said before by the myriad of other exceptional Irish writers. However, The Night Alive contains three separate monologues of such stunning beauty (you’ll know them when you hear them, but they’re performed by, in order, Maurice, Kenneth, and Doc) that you’ll remember just how powerful monologues can be when written with the proper amount of subtlety and depth (something many modern plays struggle with). Their inclusion in the play is enough to make The Night Alive a must-see.

If all this sounds of interest to you, San Jose Stage has done a very fine job with the text, presenting the show in their thrust stage with wonderful intimacy (though the stage itself is far too large to portray the kind of claustrophobia of the play’s setting). The 5-member ensemble is strongly woven together by director Tony Kelly, but special praise is earned by Julian López-Morillas as Maurice, who makes his own character’s journey as interesting as the main storyline by virtue of his acting alone.

I wish I didn’t have to say it, but it should be noted that this cast struggled very heavily with maintaining their Irish accents throughout the 110-minute runtime. Irish is a tough accent to get right, but when every actor sounds like they came from a different area in Ireland, including a few who sound British, it’s worth mentioning for audience members who demand a level of authenticity. Perhaps then you should book your tickets towards the end of the run, when the cast will have had time to practice their dialects, but you certainly don’t want to miss an evening as frequently touching as this Night Alive. 

The Night Alive runs in San Jose through December 11th. Tickets and Information available here.

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