THE BLOG
12/12/2013 09:06 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

First Nighter: Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' Is Mostly Alive

Kitchen sink dramas have been with us for several decades, which means they're not as startling as they were when they began rendering obsolescent the prevailing works that examined the lives of the well heeled. This may explain why I could admire the expert acting of the charged events depicted in Conor McPherson's new entry, The Night Alive, at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, and yet decide on leaving that I hadn't seen much of anything impressively new.

Perhaps I should say that from where I was sitting, I'm not absolutely certain I saw an actual sink on Soutra Gilmour's version of a shabby ground-floor room in a deteriorating Edwardian home near Dublin's Phoenix Park. All the same, I certainly saw McPherson's bottom-feeding characters bring in plenty of foodstuffs that they more or less prepared over the several days and then months during which the action unfolds.

Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) is the official occupant of the large space -- with its narrow bed and other dilapidated furnishings, its upstage stained-glass door to a garden and adjacent door to a bathroom. He's the kind of man-with-van who makes whatever living he can by doing small jobs. He has no prospects and, more to the point, doesn't appear to care about acquiring any.

When first seen, Tommy is returning to his digs with Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who's holding a towel to her face. She's been assaulted in a pub brawl. A hooker without a heart of gold but with redeeming features nonetheless, she's grateful for Tommy's ministrations but doesn't want to rely on them more than necessary. She's a hooker with a heart of self-sufficiency.

She does stick around, however, because she and Tommy slowly establish a romantic interest in each other, which is somewhat endangered by Maurice (Jim Norton, a McPherson vet). He's the relative from whom Tommy rents his space and who regularly threatens Tommy with eviction. The Tommy-Aimee bond is far more imperiled with the arrival of Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) -- as if from Harold Pinter and, specifically, from Pinter's The Homecoming or No Man's Land. He's the abusive boyfriend who dealt Aimee her earlier blows.

Actually, until Kenneth strides chillingly into Maurice's house, it looks as if The Night Alive isn't going to amount to much more than a slice-of-life representation of Dublin's and Ireland's current societal and economic erosion.

But there Kenneth is, almost instantly picking up a hammer with which he stalks Tommy's sometime partner Doc (Michael McElhatton), a regular visitor to the household and a freeloader on it. It's as if Kenneth's wielding the tool is introduced as an extension -- to include blunt instruments -- of Chekhov's theory that a gun once brought on stage must go off, usually causing harm.

The Night Alive suspense then builds on whether Aimee will be able to extricate herself from Kenneth's sinister demands, which include stealing money Tommy has hidden beneath floorboards. Will she be able to remain with Tommy, or will she continue in Kenneth's thrall?

The outcome McPherson provides for them is properly ambiguous and doesn't occur without one highly dramatic event that won't be revealed here. The event, however, does develop into something that, as indicated, is quite dire, but from which the playwright unconvincingly retreats.

As mentioned, McPherson has imagined three-dimensional figures in Tommy, Aimee, Maurice and Doc. They're far from upstanding citizens, but they're appealing in their ways. They're trying to make something of their lives, and even if the attempts aren't the wisest they might choose, the benighted folks are worth rooting for. Given their compromised potential, they're trying to do the best they can.

Kenneth is more two-dimensional. He intensifies McPherson's drama, but it's hard not to feel he's brought in only because McPherson realized he needed something to raise the stakes. Yes, Kenneth's appearance has been somewhat foreshadowed from the moment the battered Aimee enters without admitting to Tommy the perpetrator of her injuries, but he still feels like more of a device than the others.

At the same time, though, as the proceedings have the old deja view aspect to them -- remember that McPherson's early click, The Weir, had a four-men-one-woman cast -- there's no quarreling with his direction of the ensemble.

Hinds's imbues Tommy with shady shadings and humane longings, too. (The actor is more authentic here than he was in last season's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival.) Dunne's Aimee, sparrow thin, is admirable for her highly pronounced independent streak. Norton's nicely balances Maurice's constant mood swings. McElhatton's Doc has the right measure of sycophantic weakness and likability. Gleeson encounters no trouble bringing to the surface all the unadulterated evil called for.

So while it's true that the magnetic effect of the writing, acting and directing quickly dissipates once the lights fade on the intermissionless 90-minutes-plus The Night Alive, the heavy-duty pull it exerts while passing can't be denied and doesn't need to be.