When you make your way to your seat on the stage in Guild Hall’s current production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive,” be careful not to trip over the takeout food boxes or the wiring of old lamps, or a moldy old turnip or a handkerchief covered in blood. And for bloody hell’s sake, turn off your cell phone, because you will be seated on the stage in the midst of the action in this tense tale of modern troubles told against the backdrop of a fading, once-prim Edwardian place.
This play has a hero, and he’s responsible for all this mess. Tommy is recently divorced and living in his uncle Maurice’s drawing room, converted into a rudimentary flat with a slop sink and an electric teapot, a guitar amplifier hooked up to an iPod for a sound system and a drum stool at the kitchen table, which is piled high with cowboy novels held in place with a small sledgehammer that builders call a Monday. A Chekhovian Monday.
Tommy has a van that he uses to carry building materials around to do odd jobs with his addled buddy Doc, and he spends his days cobbling together a living and sorting out the mess of his failed marriage and his two teenage children.
When Tommy rescues a young prostitute, Aimee, from being bludgeoned by an ex-and-maybe-current lover, it’s not that his life goes down a rabbit hole into a seedy underworld. It’s more like the striations of the seedy underworld all around him suddenly come into crisp relief, and heroes are only heroes in terms of their contrast with an evil that lurks on the edges of the stage.
Of course, lurking on the edge of the stage in this production was an audience of about 50 East Hamptonites, who sit within breathing space of the actors as they go about their lives — changing into dirt-stiffened work clothes, going to bed, being bludgeoned, drinking in the wee hours and trying to make sense of their humanity and potentiality. So much for the fourth wall.
It’s a testament to the mettle of these actors that the audience, only inches away, may as well have been behind shatterproof glass. Watching the other half of the audience wince and react across the stage from me was nearly more than I could bear. I froze in my seat, painfully aware that we were all participants in this performance, too.
As an ensemble, there was not a weak performance among the cast — the worst I can say is there seemed to be moments of deep emotion where their Irish accents slipped, as if the actors were choosing whether to be true to the emotions or true to the language. These fleeting seconds seemed only to prove that the truth of the emotions deserves to win.
Kevin O’Rourke, a veteran of Broadway and Off-Broadway work whom you may have seen on “The Sopranos” or” Law and Order,” plays Tommy as a gem of a blundering working man. He’s never hit a woman and he believes in the order of this universe. He does sometimes withhold Doc’s pay, but he says it’s only for Doc’s good. Doc may have spent it all come Christmas-time, and he has gifts to buy his family.
You may have seen J. Stephen Brantley, who plays Doc, in “Of Mice and Men” at the Bay Street Theatre or in Guild Hall’s production of “The Painting Plays,” and if you have, you know that you will need to see him again in this production.
Doc is slow — about 5 to 7 seconds behind most people, he admits — but he’s also brilliant. His dreams tell the story of the whole galaxy, a galaxy turning around the slowed-time center of a black hole, destined one day to be sucked into its gravitational field, where moments will become decades and all our human troubles will be immaterial.
Mr. Brantley says on his website that “I believe that storytelling is a sacred charge. I love what I do and I strive to do it fearlessly.” He lives up to that challenge in this production.
The potential for humans to grow walks in when Aimee stumbles in the door of Tommy’s flat as he clutches her nose to stop it from bleeding. Molly Carden, who has performed new theater all over the country, from North Carolina to Kansas City to Berkley, lurches into Tommy’s life as a crumpled animal who eats her sugary tea like a bowl of soup broth, only coming alive in the moments before she jerks him off (this does not happen on stage, it is artfully implied). To watch her unfold as a human creature is a halting, infuriating process, as it is with real people.
Tuck Mulligan, who was in Guild Hall’s production of “All My Sons” last summer, is a delightful Uncle Maurice, a man whose wife died 10 days after an embolism went unnoticed after she slipped on the ice. His widowerhood is raw but his sharp humor keeps this disheveled mess of humanity on track.
Rob DiSario, who has appeared in South Fork productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Men’s Lives” and “The Crucible,” is brutal as Aimee’s ex-and-maybe-current lover Kenneth. When he walks through the door, it’s as if evil itself walked in and stirred up this soup of damaged lives. All I can say is I’m still shuddering today as I think back on his role.
Kudos to director Stephen Hamilton for coaxing the best out of this fine cast, and also to the scene, prop, makeup, lighting and costume design crews and the fight and dialect coaches for putting together this hovel and its inhabitants. It all passed muster, even at this audience’s close range.
With just about 50 seats for paying audience members each night, the economics of putting up such an elaborate production must be daunting. The Hilaria and Alec Baldwin Foundation, Ellen Myers and Joanna S. Rose have taken the lead as sponsors, making this caliber of theater available to anyone lucky enough to grab a ticket before they sell out.
“The Night Alive” continues Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through May 22. Tickets are $35 ($33 for members/$10 for students) and are available online here. Due to the tight seating arrangements, it’s best to reserve your tickets yesterday.