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Mark Alhadeff in Rum and Vodka
(Photo: Gary Breckheimer)
Few of us have not wanted to throw our computer terminal out the office window at some point in our careers. The narrator of Rum and Vodka, the first play by Conor McPherson, knows firsthand what happens when you lose your head and toss your terminal, and your life, out the window. The aftermath isn't pretty but, as he relates, "My life's one big, sordid detail." Starring Mark Alhadeff as a boozing Irishman, this one-character piece showcases the eye and ear for detail which has brought McPherson acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and a run on Broadway in 1998 of his ghost-story drama The Weir.

Now, Rum and Vodka is receiving its first major production in New York -- at the Ohio Theatre through October 20, courtesy of SOHO Think Tank -- having been seen stateside only for a brief run at the New York Fringe Festival a few years back. The play conforms to expectations: Narratives full of riveting detail are McPherson's dramatic strength, and all of his produced works preceding The Weir featured one character at a time speaking directly to the audience. As a frame for acting talent and in its themes and style, this show resembles The Good Thief, the one-man piece that McPherson wrote after Rum and Vodka and that was produced downtown two years ago starring Brian d'Arcy James.

Not nearly the ruffian that the Thief was to begin with, the nameless character who tells his story in Rum and Vodka has walked into his life backwards. After a two-year relationship with a girlfriend at an age when "you're still trying the world on for size," his drunken liason with another woman, Maria,leads to pregnancy and his girlfriend dumps him. "I think it was the worst thing that ever happened to her in her life," he says with the numbness that comes from living in regret, and self-preserving denial. If he knew her better, he'd know for certain if his betrayal topped the list. But that's youth.

Soon, he marries the mother of his child, to whom he is grateful in large part because she is "the only one who didn't criticize me." Yet thoughts of his girlfriend seem to haunt our (anti-)hero, who claims he has "nothing to say about that except that sometimes...I miss her." With his new wife, we learn, sex remains vital during pregnancy and after. Soon, a decent job as a civil servant, a house, and two daughters have filled out his world. "I was the real nine-to-five animal," he relates. "It was all right. I remembered birthdays and I was Santa."

Life with Maria and daughters Niamh and Carol moves smoothly, but he notes that it was "quite a shock when I realized that this was as good as things were going to get." This epiphany, combined with the character's regular drinking bouts with pals Phil and Declan, leads to the fateful computer-tossing incident at work. Smelling of booze from a liquid lunch and called on the carpet for his mistakes and his noon tippling by boss Eamon Meaney, our hero unplugs, gets fired, and starts down the road toward self-destruction.

During the three-day bender that makes up the bulk of the play, he latches on to Myfanwy, a beautiful grad student whom he hopes will cure his life. Her wealthy lifestyle and friends do not sit well with him, however: "These blokes were very intense. Even when they were trying to be funny." Their parties and patter aggravate his state of mind, already volatile and insecure, as he desperately screws and fights and drinks his way through 72 hours in attempt to forget his mistakes. Despite his own mates' prescription of rum and vodka on ice "to awaken the dead," nothing seems to lift the fog in which he's lost. But we are swept along by the rhythm of a tale well told as his life crumbles before our eyes.

In his challenging solo assignment, actor Mark Alhadeff makes believable every step on the character's path, turning the Ohio's vast space into a confessional almost claustrophobic in its intimacy. The performance is remarkable for its ability to retain audience sympathy despite the character's many rather deplorable traits. If Alhadeff's performance is inhibited by anything, it is the limitations of McPherson's first mature script (he wrote a few plays before finding his voice with this one, by his own account) and, to some extent, the direction of Samuel Buggeln. The narrator's tone occupies the same range of defeated, honest frankness for much of the show and the rhythm of his delivery contains fewer pauses for insight, searching, or new reflection than one might hope for.

The production values here are all quite high-level, including music preceding the show by Celia Farran and the lighting design of Farley Whitfield. The lasting image of the evening is one of a man whose spirit is walking back and forth in empty space -- conscious of having done wrong, in pain, overhearing his own story in a fog so deep you can almost smell the booze on his breath. As my theater companion noted, Rum and Vodka would be a good show for alcoholics to see as aversion therapy. Fans of McPherson and those curious about his work should check it out also.

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