If you’re ever asked to name a playwright who can really spin a yarn, say “Conor McPherson.” The Irish dramatist has been unwinding spellbinders for two decades now – ghost tales, morality plays and spiritual mysteries laced with the wry comedy of ordinary people bumbling through life.
You wouldn’t mistake “The Night Alive” for the work of any other writer. The 2013 drama, now at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre in an appropriately ginger production, zooms in on the grubby Dublin flat of a middle-aged man named Tommy (Edward Gero, recently seen prowling the boards as Antonin Scalia in Arena Stage’s “The Originalist”). Tommy stumbles in with a bloodied young woman he just found on the street. Now what?
For McPherson, nothing much. He has said he likes to tease audiences with non-action that moves as slowly as weather, and that’s how the first half of this intermission-less 100-minute play unfolds. Tommy, rendered endearingly by Gero as a deeply sweet but bedraggled man, shuffles around the junk in his room trying to find a bite and maybe some soap for Aimee, the battered woman played watchfully by Katie deBuys. Tommy may be down and out, but his instincts are almost entirely gentlemanly. There’s an amusing courtliness to Gero’s performance as Tommy offers what little he has to the damsel in distress.
The room is a corner of a house owned by Tommy’s old uncle Maurice (a cranky Michael Tolaydo), a widower with a heavy secret in his heart. Sometimes Tommy’s slow-witted, inescapable sidekick Doc (Gregory Linington) nips in to sleep on the cot; his sister and her fiance keep kicking him out. Tommy’s bed is a mattress on the cluttered floor, and these physical details, nicely layered by set and costume designer Meghan Raham, build up. Each character’s life is a blasted mess.
The climax is driven from a quarter that won’t surprise McPherson fans. In a melodramatic touch, Aimee’s possessive boyfriend, Kenneth (Joseph Carlson), comes calling, but the things this villain says have a twist that are part of what gradually catapults “The Night Alive” onto a metaphysical plane. Any time you spend feeling antsy in the first part of the show, including a mundane bit with characters happily eating carryout, is redeemed by the low but unmistakable thunder of Part 2, when the play’s questions grow very large.
The joy of McPherson is how sneakily he arrives at his destination; his plays are crafty but almost never pretentious. They are hard to play well, though. His characters are recognizably roughed up by experience, and in the early going of Ryan Rilette’s patient production, only Gero’s Tommy — regret and conflict abuzz in his suddenly sharp voice as he deals with his ex-wife on the phone — seems really lived in. (Typical McPherson: The details of life leak in at the script’s edges.) The girl, the sidekick and the uncle can register too much like types if the mix of naturalism and high charm aren’t just right. The same goes for blissful incidents such as the one driven by a Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”) on the radio.
Suspense is pivotal, and it’s something McPherson manages expertly when he directs his own material. Rilette’s show isn’t utterly taut, but it’s very close, and it’s right on course — still finding its menace but already compelling in depicting the characters’ despair and their awkward, inarticulate heart-to-hearts. There is a coda, and this show nails it.
That’s a lot to master for a play that often seems to be going nowhere at all, but understated complexity is McPherson’s gift. Not until you fully believe in the story and in these beleaguered but spirited misfits does he slide a convincing bit of magic from his play’s tattered sleeve.
“The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson. Directed by Ryan Rilette. Lights, Colin K. Bills; composer/sound designer, Eric Shimelonis. About 100 minutes. Through Nov. 13 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets
$30 to $66, subject to change. Call
240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.