Played in a fine, blathery turn by television star William Petersen, John is not one of your bitter, belligerent, sloppy drunks. Barely impaired, articulate, friendly -- even downright chatty -- he's quite happy to play mentor to a young man (Danny Mefford) who's temporarily helping him out.
John has all the answers. He's a font of putative wisdom, whether doling out advice on the ideal gift for a young lady (a jumper with "a nice pair of socks in the pocket as a surprise"), discoursing on the perils of "dangerous love" (the kind that entails interdependence), or mapping out the day-to-day stages of prolonged inebriation (a virtual advent calendar of torments). He knows why he drinks. He knows why he couldn't hack heading a family and felt compelled to abandon his, decades ago. (In this arena, McPherson's low-key, seemingly offhand script is packed with insight.) What John doesn't know is any other way to live.
Then a stand-offish young woman (Rachael Warren) arrives, offering a challenge and a choice. McPherson spends a good 10 minutes of this 80-minute play dodging around her identity, so it wouldn't do to reveal her link to this garrulous loner -- and it almost doesn't matter, because the outcome is intentionally left up in the air.
Will John accede to her demands and do the right thing? Or is it much too late for futile gestures? In a sense, you're left to supply your own ending. John has already established the fact that, having sensed imminent failure, he'll run to embrace it. And his profession has taught him that there's a certain dignity in bowing to the inevitable.
While not a major, multifaceted work on a par with The Weir and other McPherson plays, this study of a squandered existence leaves an unsettling aftertaste. John's yearning to connect is palpable, as is his attendant fear. Petersen illumines all the facets of this conflicted soul, and he's solidly partnered by Mefford, who brings to bear his own subtle manifestation of drunkenness (he's merely a little slow, off-kilter) and manages to pack volumes into each noncommittal "hmm." As the would-be agent of change, Warren seems over-calculating in terms of her affect, and her Irish accent distractingly fades in and out.
Still, it's the bond between two men straddling opposite thresholds of adulthood that carries the play, which is given an optimal production here; Amy Morton's direction is tight, and Eugene Lee's set is characteristically veristic. Mostly likely, audiences will be drawn to see the show by Petersen's fame, yet fittingly -- John fancies himself "perverse" -- it's the actor's non-showy grasp of this shadow-dwelling character that's apt to leave them enthralled.