WHERE'S MARTIN McDONAGH when you need him? That's what I asked myself when I saw Third Rail Repertory's The Night Alive. McDonagh's a master of Irish theater about the lives of sad, dispossessed people, and Conor McPherson's Night Alive explores similar territory, but with none of the dark humor and subtle tenderness that keep McDonagh's plays from becoming a chore to watch.
The Night Alive also suffers from being the original rescue fantasy: A washed-up man, Tommy (Damon Kupper), turns his life around after saving—and housing! and romancing!—a young prostitute, Aimee (Christina Holtom), from a Bad Man, the flatly evil Kenneth (Rolland Walsh). If that sounds familiar, that's because it is—it's the manic pixie dream girl arc, starring a beautiful sex worker instead of a beautiful nerd. Wait a minute, that's not better! You guys, SHE'S LITERALLY A HOOKER WITH A HEART OF GOLD. This, along with how woefully underwritten Aimee is (she speaks in monosyllables; she has virtually no backstory) made me feel like I was watching with an angry feminist cockatoo sitting on my shoulder, as it occasionally squawked, "Prrrrroblematic! Prrrrroblematic!"—and also the cockatoo was me. Because, I dunno, maybe someone can elucidate this, but how is a victimized woman exchanging sex for a roof over her head romantic and life affirming?
It left me unconvinced, and longing for that other mean-spirited Irish playwright, McDonagh, who shares McPherson's fondness for hoarder houses and hopelessness, but can also write a wonderfully strange and whole female character like no one else—yeah, he wrote The Pillowman, but he also brought us the eccentric, reclusive sisters, Kate and Eileen, in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane's Maureen Folan. There are no Maureens in The Night Alive, I am sorry to say.
Source material aside, Third Rail's production boasts two standout performances that are well worth the price of admission: Michael O'Connell lends some humanity to Doc, Tommy's kooky best friend, transforming a clichéd role into a character who's very likeable, imbuing everything he talks about with real emotion (even shower gel). Del Lewis, too, as Tommy's ornery old uncle, brings some sneaky warmth and nuance to his role.
Warmth and nuance are what this play needs more of. The Night Alive has been compared to a fairy tale, and I actually agree with that: It sure is dark, and it contains a purely evil villain, a damsel in distress, and a deus ex machina ending. None of these belong in a play intended for adults.