Written and Directed by Conor Macpherson
Imported from the Donmar Warehouse (London)
With its original cast
Atlantic Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

The Night Alive, at the Atlantic Theatre, an import from London’s Donmar Warehouse written and directed by Irish playwright Conor Macpherson. The Donmar/boilerplate summary is as concise as any; I’ve inserted the cast names: “Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) not a bad man, he’s getting by. Renting a run-down room in his uncle Maurice’s (Jim Norton) house, just about keeping his ex-wife and kids at arm’s length and rolling from one get-rich-quick scheme to the other with his pal Doc (Michael McElhatton). Then one day he comes to the aid of Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who’s not had it easy herself, struggling through life the only way she knows how.” What the summary doesn’t reveal is the initial grunginess of Tommy’s first floor digs, nor that as played by Hands, he’s a shaggy, gentle bear of a man, and a good deal less naïve than the jittery but well-meaning Doc, for whom his affectionate friendship goes back too far to have to be explicable. It also doesn’t mention the complexity of uncle Maurice, who’s far savvier than Tommy realizes—but not about everything. They’re a winning bunch of characters, beautifully realized and acted to the strains of Connor’s particular brand of dialogical poetry. However…

                        What the boilerplate also doesn’t mention is Aimee’s abusive boyfriend Kenneth (Brian Gleeson), though he puts in an appearance too. As the play progressed, I was kind of hoping against hope that this fellow—referred to as only “boyfriend” at first, an offstage presence—wouldn’t be the last character to show up onstage, because I knew that if he did, the suspense of the play would be, for me, essentially over, because the domino effect of his presence would send the rest of the characters on a path that seemed to me inevitable. Sure enough, he arrives at the midpoint and sure enough, I roughly “saw” the rest of the story. I casn’t go quite as far as saying schematic, nor can I say this experience is one most of the audience would share. But it’s where I knew I’d seen this territory covered before. Just not as elegantly.

                        For me, most of Macpherson’s plays are a somewhat leisurely, sometimes brilliant, verbal reworking of other people’s stories (particularly in the ghost story/supernatural genre, into which The Night Alive does not fall); either experimentation with familiar tropes (the ghost stories in The Weir) or downright paraphrase of something obscure (Seafarer struck me as highly inspired—I won’t say consciously—by an 80s Twilight Zone segment called “Dealer’s Choice” by Donald Todd. I don’t know anything about Macpherson personally, but if he isn’t at heart a genre fanboy, I’ll eat my cyber-hat.) What separates this reworking from theft is not dissimilar to that which keeps charges of plagiarism away from Shakespeare; Macpherson gives it a newness of treatment, of context, of character profile, of language; he takes it out of the realm of “mere” pop culture and provides a high-toned literary sheen, in the best sense of that phrase. And the mental deal I strike with his work hearkens to an anecdote I once heard about a classical composer who was asked by one of his students, “Maestro, is it permissible to borrow from the work of others?” and gave the reply, “Yes, but you must pay back with interest.”

                        The Night Alive takes care of the vigorish…

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