Jim Norton in Dublin Carol(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jim Norton in Dublin Carol
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Conor McPherson writes more eloquently about the loneliness of the individual than any playwright today. His characters are almost always men who find solace in drink, whom the playwright has made to unpack their souls in confessional monologues that both cloud and clarify their condition. Such is the case in Dublin Carol, a piece with greater depth than McPherson has heretofore shown but without quite the same eeriness that permeated his Broadway hit The Weir. The ghosts that McPherson addresses in this play are more tangible.

John, an aging funeral director -- played by Jim Norton in a subtly phenomenal performance -- stiffly roams the floor of his office while taking his daily doses of Jameson's and tea. Unease is evident in his every gesture and in his manner of speaking, as if speech were the only possible salvation from emotional collapse. (This form of the talking cure is self-administered and not terribly progressive, much like a cycle of methadone administered by a heroin addict to stave off the inevitable breakdown.) Directed ably by the author for the Atlantic Theater Company after a run in jolly old England at the Old Vic, this three-hander reinforces the playwright's belief in the value of staged storytelling and the redemptive quality of listening, as well.

As the play opens, John's dingy office and personal comfort zone has been brightened slightly by Christmas trinkets, for the day of the Good Lord Jaysus is almost upon us. With John is young Mark, played by Keith Nobbs, who gave a breakout performance in Christopher Shinn's Four. Mark's work for John lets him in for dollops of the lonely old man's jabber: Each time Mark tries to leave to meet his girlfriend Kim, John stops him with a feeble offer of tea, or crackers, unable to adequately cloak his terror at being alone. We are as uneasy with John as Mark is, and their rapport -- strained but cordial -- registers as realistic. Nobbs's accent is at times spot-on and at times gone, but the young actor inhabits stage space with a calm that transmits a range of emotions beyond the capacity of many veteran thespians.

As expected, a good bit of Irish bullshit passes between these two, along with a couple of pathetic attempts at gallows humor. The effect of John's mortuary work upon him soon becomes evident. He explains how he obtained the post from Mark's uncle Noel, and that story, in which his life is saved by a job working among the dead, becomes one of several resonant metaphors that echo through the play. John is clearly most comfortable hiding from life in the sound of his own voice and in booze. When Mark finally escapes, we wonder what this tottering saucehound might do with himself as December 24 eases into afternoon. The entry of his daughter Mary (Kerry O'Malley) resolves that question but brings up many others.

Kerry O’Malley and Jim Norton in Dublin Carol(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Kerry O’Malley and Jim Norton in Dublin Carol
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Watching O'Malley's performance with Norton reminds us how rarely we see actors portraying awkward moments so believably that we experience the mild panic we feel when witnessing such things in life. Mary's news, about offstage members of the family, invokes the deepest of John's guilt and regrets; their dialogue is alternately tender and wrenching. That anyone still writes these kinds of elemental conflicts so well is laudable, and that McPherson has done it signifies a new level of risk and accomplishment for him.

After the scene between John and Mary -- among the best now onstage anywhere in New York -- the play takes a strange turn. Mark returns, and he and John repeat their minuet of weak wit and whiskey as Mark details his conflicts with his own lady friend. After a bit of inappropriate, avuncular advice from the older man, the play ends.

John has evidently decided to turn over a new leaf as the lights fade, yet we want more. It seems that McPherson himself, like his characters, prefers not to stray too far from his own dramaturgical comfort zone -- the monologue spiked with single-malt -- and is only slowly developing the guts and/or desire to put wrenching scenes onstage. Here's hoping that he continues in this vein.