St. Nicholas, by Conor McPherson, starring Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle,is currently in production at The Goodman Theatre, (The Owen), 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through January 27, 2019. The tragic/comic recitation seems to throw down a challenge to the theater critic in that the one actor, two act, two hour play tightly directed by Simon Evans portrays a self hating member of that profession, liberally awash in booze, who appears to be having a drawn out nervous breakdown on stage.
The set is spare, large windows blocked by newspaper, dim and lowered lights. There are almost no props save fraying Turkey carpets, old newspapers under a barren desk, and a bucket to catch the drips from a leaky ceiling. Eerie, uncanny sounds frame a highly engaging actor delivering a sustained effort at soul searching, sometimes pitiful, often maudlin- but it’s also a deeply funny bon mot filled assessment of a life gone astray. Kudos to set designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Matt Daw and sound designer Christopher Shutt for the unsettling ambience.
The tale is divided, tells the narrator, into “life before the vampires” and “life after the vampires”. It also is divided into life without the beauteous actress he worships from a raunchy and lecherous distance. Since there are- of course- no such thing as vampires, and there are no other characters on stage, we must assume that the monsters are figments of the bottle and his overwrought mind; the unrequited love torments probably took place. This is a man whose being has been co-opted.
As the self absorbed monologue continues, it becomes obvious that it isn’t the nature of the Dubliner’s job that is significant; this is an obsessively drawn portrait of obsession itself. Not to put too fine an analytical spin on it, the author probably intends to compare critics to bloodsuckers who feed on the vital force of the living; our inebriated hero advises us that he was dead in spirit before he met the Nosferatu gang. We are in the presence of a deeply disappointed individual who has gloried in his imagined power over others, who writes reviews before he’s seen the plays, who lies about the substance of his opinions in order to win an actress’ affection. No wonder he’s estranged from family, colleagues, mental health and self esteem!
In many instances, this is a witty and certainly highly melodramatic script, and Coyle is absolutely up to the challenge, perhaps in part due to his fame and the instant recognition factor. Coupled with his undeniable talent and that melodious voice, he is larger than life, and fascinating to watch. He has splendid comedic timing and an apparently limitless ability to portray numerous characters as he recounts conversations. Still, it’s a difficult role to carry off, not because of the absurd premise, but because we just don’t care enough about the critic as a person; he’s a cliché instead of a hero. Also, too often the non-drama becomes confusing, especially in the second act: just who is talking to whom?
For information and tickets to all the great performances at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, go to www.goodmantheatre.org
All photos by Helen Maybanks