Three people in the midst of conversation stop everything they're doing so they can dance along with a radio blasting Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?" As this trio of Irish misfits continues to groove, the music gets louder and louder, enveloping their living quarters and sending them into a state of near-nirvana. Then, suddenly, the music comes to a forced stop when their bliss is interrupted by the banging of the elderly upstairs housemate, which propels our group back into their misery.
In a play chock full of transcendent theatricality, this moment in Conor McPherson's keenly observed and excellently acted new drama, The Night Alive, encapsulates the piece: misfits searching for a way out find it, briefly, only to get shot back down to the wretched lives they're so desperate to escape. McPherson specializes in tortured souls such as these. The wayward Tommy (Ciarán Hinds), slow-witted Doc (Michael McElhatton), and troubled Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) fit right into the author's canon of characters, a group that includes hard-drinking storytellers, destroyed families, and the Devil himself.
McPherson has spent the bulk of his career trafficking in the supernatural. Ghosts, as literal as they are figurative, haunt the denizens of The Weir and Shining City; that pesky Devil shows up in The Seafarer, playing an ordinary man in a game of cards for his soul. The Night Alive, which comes to Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater after a summer run at London's Donmar Warehouse, is a different kind of supernatural. There is pure evil afoot to harm the lives of our protagonists, but this hopeful drama seeks redemption for its characters rather than harm.
Before the play begins, Tommy sees a young lady get knocked out by her ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) and, playing the knight in rusty armor, brings her into the basement flat of his uncle Maurice (Jim Norton), where he has lived since separating from his wife and children. Tommy, whose only friends are Doc and (sometimes) the cantankerous widower Maurice, sees in Aimee a sort of salvation and finds himself falling for this mysterious woman, whose secrets he's blissfully unaware of.
One of the beauties in McPherson's script, which he also directs, is how he never lets the audience get ahead of the plot. Just as everything seems to be going smoothly, a sharp tonal shift and a terrifying act of violence (so realistically coordinated by violence consultant J. David Brimmer that it makes the audience gasp) up the ante and reveal the truths about our characters. That such an abrupt shift works as well as it does is a testament to both McPherson's skilled technique as a writer and his first-rate cast.
In the central role of Tommy, Hinds, who played the devilish Mr. Lockhart in the Broadway run of The Seafarer, delivers a performance unlike anything we've seen from him before. This hulking, menacing actor who can scare us with a simple glare, plays the complete opposite here, a stooped, overweight slob, and he does it just as well. Norton, who also appeared in McPherson's Seafarer, and won a Tony for his role, further deepens and refines his portrayal of the hard-drinking Irishman, expertly telegraphing how easy it is for people to be able to shake off a night of boozing with barely a shrug. McElhatton wins our hearts as the sweet-natured Doc, Gleeson terrifies as the ex-boyfriend, and Dunne excels in perhaps the hardest role as Aimee, never allowing her body language to let her character's hidden past slip out before it's revealed.
The design is just as noteworthy as the cast. Soutra Gilmour's towering and dingy Edwardian basement set, cluttered with garbage and books and yellowing walls, is the drama's most imposing figure, and her costumes expertly define the characters. Neil Austin's evocative lighting and Gregory Clarke's soundscape deepen the moodiness of the drama.
It is in its ending where The Night Alive will polarize; in London, writers and audiences largely agreed that the play went on for one scene too long. But McPherson, as writer and director, knows exactly what he is doing. That final moment, more of a question mark than a resolution, is just another example of life itself: nothing is ever as it seems.