"I hate people with skills that can do stuff," states the unnamed narrator of Conor McPherson's The Good Thief. He is explaining why he broke the fingers of a shoe repairman whom he'd been hired to rough up. Played with great charm by Brian d'Arcy James, the Dublin thug somehow manages to be extremely likable even as he describes some of the bad things he's done. James, best known for his musical roles in Titanic and MTC's The Wild Party, possesses good looks and a commanding stage presence that helps woo the audience to his side. At the same time, his piercingly intense gaze and unshaven face suggest the dangerous edge needed to make the character believable.
This solo play is an intimate look into the thoughts and feelings of a man whose job it is to scare and intimidate others. When what was supposed to be a routine job results in a gun battle in which several people die, the play's narrator finds himself on the run. His employer wants to eliminate him for botching the job, and the law is looking for someone to charge with murder and kidnapping. Accompanying him on his flight from the city is the wife of one of the men who died in the gunfight, and the woman's young daughter.
McPherson weaves a gripping tale full of suspense, humor, and moments of quiet reflection. It's the combination of these elements that makes him such a compelling writer. He's a master of the monologue, evidenced not only by this play but also by such previous works as The Weir, This Lime Tree Bower, and St. Nicholas. In The Good Thief, the playwright paints a complex portrait of a man who seems to be a mass of contradictions.
The play's title is a bit of a mystery. Does it refer to the narrator? Compared to other characters in the play, he's "good" but certainly no angel. While he does steal a car during the course of events, he's also not primarily a thief. The narrator refers to another character who might more accurately fit the title's description: a burglar who likes to break into people's homes and go through their personal effects. This petty criminal comes into the narrator's life at a crucial juncture but, in the larger scheme of things, he plays only a minor role.
In addition, there is the religious metaphor to consider. The title may refer to the criminal who was crucified alongside Jesus and redeemed through the acceptance of his guilt and its punishment as well as his belief in Christ as the Messiah. The play's original title, The Light of Jesus, certainly lends credence to this interpretation. However, in the narrator's journey to possible redemption, Jesus isn't really involved. Despite the Christian symbolism of the title, McPherson avoids overt references to religion within the text of the play.
The production, ably directed by Carl Forsman, is keyed into the rhythm of the narrative. The pacing is superb, with Josh Bradford's moody lighting design aiding the transitions by accentuating the narrator's emotional states. A bare-bones set by Nathan Heverin foregrounds the actor and his ability to convey the story. Thankfully, James is perfectly suited to the task, imbuing his performance with a range of non-verbal tics that give the character distinction. Shrugs, little flicks of the tongue, and a thick but understandable Irish accent convey a vibrant inner life that grounds the narrator firmly in the darkly poetic world of the play.