Imperfect people struggling to free themselves from messy circumstances can make for good drama. But actors fumbling with accents and mumbling lines as they play those imperfect people — as they do in Undermain Theatre’s The Night Alive by Conor McPherson — just make a mess of a pretty good play.
This is contemporary Irish noir. Now in his mid-40s, with successes including The Weir and The Seafarer among his credits, McPherson has major theaters such as Chicago’s Steppenwolf and London’s Donmar Warehouse clamoring to produce everything he writes.
Maybe Undermain was too eager to jump on The Night Alive. It’s a bad fit. Director Dylan Key has bollixed the interaction of the characters and actors Bruce DuBose, Katherine Bourne, Gordon Fox and Marcus Stimac wear those characters, and their thick Irish brogues, like cement overshoes. Only Scott Latham, playing a down-and-out dope named Doc who ruminates on the matters of death, afterlife and time itself, stays light on his feet, clicking with McPherson’s peculiar Irish-isms. But he’s not the main character.
DuBose, wearing longer hair but as morose an actor as ever, has the lead as Tommy, a middle-aged unemployed loser estranged from his wife and kids. Now renting a trash-strewn room in his widowed uncle’s rattletrap Dublin house, Tommy collects junk that he and buddy Doc resell for a Euro or two. Their bank is a cake tin under floorboards.
One night Tommy brings home a different bit of cast-off merch, a beat-up hooker named Aimee (Bourne, never changing her grimace for two and a half hours). He dabs blood from her nose and makes tea on the hot plate. She stays the night, then just stays, which leaves Doc homeless.
The uncle (Fox, unsure with lines) wanders in and out, sometimes pissed to the gills. Aimee’s boyfriend, a mountain of muscle named Kenneth (Stimac), drops by at the end of the first act to wreak violent havoc. (Sara Romersberger’s fight choreography produces punches so fake they spoil the scene.)
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McPherson loves a bruised knuckle and a black eye on his characters, but his dialogue leans toward lyrical. Hear the poetry as one character describes loneliness: “It’s like my eyes have been taken out, and I just can’t see what’s in front of me, like it’s always nighttime, so when nighttime really comes, you think it feels like a relief.”
At Undermain, director Key doesn’t allow a beat for that to land, and he blocks actors into boring lineups facing the audience to deliver long speeches. Behind them stretches a deep three-dimensional landscape of Tommy’s room, created by designer Robert Winn, layered with mismatched lamps, chewed-up chairs, stacks of books and other detritus. They don’t use the space, don’t take us into it with them. They hover on the edge.
One vignette in this sluggish production does draw us and them in. Tommy, Doc and Aimee dance with awkward abandon to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” For a moment, the actors seem to know the answer to the question asked in that old song. They relax and groove to the rhythm, taking a break from grappling with accents and a play they haven’t quite got a hold on yet.
The Night Alive
continues through December 12 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. Tickets $15-$30 at 214-747-5515 or undermain.org.