Matthew Maguire and Michael Ryan in Nighttown
(Photo: Steve Kahn)
Matthew Maguire and Michael Ryan in Nighttown
(Photo: Steve Kahn)
With Nighttown, playwright and director Susan Mosakowski takes on a particularly difficult task--namely, keeping an audience engaged through an hour-and-a-half of conversation between two mental patients--and does not quite succeed. But there is much of interest in this chamber piece, which takes us inside a Dublin asylum and, simultaneously, inside the cracked imaginations of two of its guests. One of them is named Caesar McCarthy (Michael Ryan) but he thinks he's James Joyce; the other is Leo Kittle (Matthew Maguire) and he doesn't know what to think--especially since McCarthy is determined to make him over as Leo Bloom, the hero of Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses.

Mosakowski's greatest asset in putting over this idea is her actors. We believe in Ryan's McCarthy so completely that we want to believe what McCarthy believes. A strong physical resemblance to the great author doesn't hurt: no costume designer or makeup artist is credited, but someone did a great job fashioning McCarthy with just the right hat, facial hair, and glasses). Maguire as Kittle gives a an energetic performance--swinging himself up and down from his bed, shadow-boxing, alternatively furious with his bunkmate's pestering and quivering with wanting the fantasy to be true.

Both men have pasts they're hiding from; it's just that, so far, McCarthy has been more successful in submerging the painful realities of his life into a new, imaginary persona. The arc of the play is reveleased in an uneven series of episodes, bookended with bits of lashing waves and Irish music from sound designer Timothy J. Anderson; it has to do with Kittle's initial resistance of, and subsequent measured descent into, the eminently desirable world that "Joyce" presents to him. It's a world in which he can become the jaunty, self-satisfied protagonist of Ulysses, in love with the full-figured, full-voiced Molly. Surely this is a more comforting option than remaining sad little Leo Kittle, locked up in the loony bin for homicide (or was it suicide?) and without a friend in the world besides a violent criminal (or is he?) who thinks he's James Joyce.

"I just want us to be seeing the same thing at the same time," laments poor McCarthy at a moment when Kittle refuses to acknowledge his vision--in this case, described by McCarthy as one of giant rocks jutting from imagined seafoam like a pair of breasts. The twin protagonists try to puzzle out each other's pasts (and their own), painting imaginary landscapes. Mosakowski pushes us to ponder the philosophical questions of the madhouse: What is real and what is fantasy, and does it matter? Is it better to be sane or to be happy?

But in her extended and often fascinating pursuit of these airy concerns, the playwright fails to provide enough solid ground. Too often, Mosakowski takes advantage of the fact that her characters are loosely moored to reality and similarly keeps her play loosely tied to its own story. One scene opens with McCarthy and Kittle trying to decide between the two of them what time it is: "Midnight? Two? Nine?", and so on. This is how the scenes of Nighttown progress, without any temporal context; in fact, some of the more esoteric sequences could be redeposited elsewhere in the play and it probably wouldn't change much.

Late in the show, it develops that one of the heroes stands a chance of being released--not set forth into the imaginary world of Ulysses, but released from the mental hospital. Suddenly we are not just following a heady conversation between two characters hovering on the edge of civilization; rather, we have been given a reason to care what happens to them next. Their intertwined fates have become defined in a way that we understand and with which we can empathize. If only that moment came earlier on.