What’s going on in Dublin?
Getting to the dark heart with playwright Conor McPherson
Gazing at the stage of the Blue Room Theatre’s current production, which features a catastrophically unmade bed, and strewn with assorted furniture, unwashed dishes, laundry and other detritus of an unkempt life, one can’t help but think, “What’s going on here?” The scene is the chaotic interior of a Dublin apartment that director/set designer Amber Miller has crafted for Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, and as narratives by the Irish playwright (The Weir, The Seafarer) often do, there is a whole lot more to the setting than meets the eye.
As McPherson is quoted in the show’s program, “When I had the first idea for the play, I saw it as a kind of Charles Dickens story. … It’s very old-fashioned and traditional. … It’s almost like a fairy tale.”
Blending Dickens’ penchant for pointed social commentary with elements of a fairy tale and setting the result in present-day Ireland is a worthy dramatic challenge. The narrative begins when the tenant of the apartment, Tommy (Joe Hilsee), returns from going out for a late night snack of chips (supplied by The Banshee pub down the block) with a battered young woman in tow. If Tommy is a dubious blend of knight in shining armor touched with a bit of conniving ogre or shambling giant, his guest, Aimee (Julia Rauter), is not only the damsel in distress but also the redeeming fairy and, perhaps to some, the wicked enchantress.
Tommy’s compatriot in get-rich schemes and collaborator on odd jobs, Doc (Rob Wilson), bears the name of the leader of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, and like that Disney character, he sometimes amusingly bumbles and stammers while expressing his wisdom and insight, losing his train of thought mid-sentence. Doc’s thoughts, Tommy says, “will always, always, be five to 10 minutes behind everybody else.”
Maurice (Roger Montalbano) is both Tommy’s landlord and uncle who doesn’t hesitate to express his disapproval of his nephew’s slovenly habits and ramshackle life choices. Maurice is wounded by his own grief and loss, and bears guilt of his wife’s death—she slipped on ice after he refused to take her hand because, at the time of the accident, they “weren’t speaking.” His drunken breakdown on coming home from an anniversary mass commemorating her death—which is attended by only three people—leads to a touching moment.
The action of the play stirringly and gracefully fluctuates between comic moments, genuinely sentiment-laden sadness, and, with the entry of Aimee’s abusive boyfriend, Kenneth (Nick Anderson), disturbing violence. Part-time prostitute Aimee is a catalyst for many kinds of release, including getting Tommy to admit, after having received sexual satisfaction via her skilled hand, that full copulation, with “all that huffing and puffing, [is] so unbecoming.”
The key scene occurs when Tommy hears Marvin Gaye’s classic soul-searching song, “What’s Going On,” and rises in a dance that takes him, and eventually Aimee and Doc, out of their tragic present and into a world where there’s at least the possibility of momentary peace.
“Marvin, you said it there, man,” Tommy says in response to the song’s chorus/title. “That is the question. The man who answers that one will …” He never completes the statement, leaving it open for us to decide.