Tommy is the latest in a long line of dramatic misanthropes. From Synge’s Christy Mahon to now, many misunderstood and compelling protagonists have commanded the stage. We usually are privy to a number of “reveals” about why their tortured pride and dwindling sense of selfhood are in crisis. The Problem often turns out to be the product of repression, egocentrism, belated Puritanism, fear of intimacy or other familiar bugaboos whose relevance is quickly fading from contemporary theatre.
Conor McPherson uses all of this as unspoken backstory in his excellent The Night Alive, which recently was produced at Steppenwolf Theatre after a triumphant run in Dublin. McPherson knows that Tommy is a knotty individual, and he knows we know it. McPherson’s interest is in the gaining back, not the losing. In Tommy he offers a portrait of a sinner down to his last excuse, a con man reduced to cribbing a few ducats from a schizophrenic friend/accomplice, Doc, who is so mentally encumbered he can’t follow a knock-knock joke. Tommy is dancing as fast as he can. He is at the end of a short rope, one that might easily slip into a noose. Tommy is estranged from his family, friends, if he ever had any worthy of the name. His wife and daughter live apart. He has lost his business. He rents a room in a converted house/hotel near Phoenix park on the outskirts of Dublin. He has never been there, not even to see the zoo, and one look at the close set of Frances Guinan’s downcast eyes tells you that there have been many, many other missed opportunities.
It’s not all bad. Tommy loves his Soul music and had a sweetness as a boy. He cherishes small victories such as paying for an hour of electricity with the same coin for weeks on end and enjoying some vegetables stolen from the landlord’s garden. But it’s not much. The good moments barely punctuate the bad ones.
Tommy tries to do the right thing for once. He helps a young courtesan named Aimee escape a savage attack by her pimp/boyfriend. He hides Aimee out in his room. Hope? He falls for her, but the portrayal is lifted light years above cliché by the genuineness of the material and the probity of Frances Guinan as Tommy. Guinan is McPherson’s instrument. John Wayne to his John Ford. DiCaprio to his Scorsese. In his pot-bellied impishness mixed with last-chance whiskey despair, Guinan is the ultimate mask for Male Regret. You actually believe Tommy thinks he and Aimee can start a new life in Finland (his Avalon of dreams) on only 3,000 Euros because Guinan makes you believe it.
The cast all around is excellent. Tim Hopper radiates just the right note of involved confusion perfect for Doc. Helen Sadler does a lot with what the script gives her. It is decidedly a play about males and “male issues,” but her alluring passivity makes it clear why the men would fight over her. The pimp/boyfriend is played by Dan Waller, whose lean efficiency suggests Pinterian menace. When he beats Doc up, it becomes clear that these lovable losers are running out of time. Also featured in the cast is redoubtable character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the hotel owner Maurice, Tommy’s uncle. Walsh’s filmography lists over 115 credits. (You hated him as the perfect emblem of mid-level corruption in Blade Runner and Blood Simple).
The plot, such as it is, resolves itself into interestingly complex suggestions. Previously we had enjoyed the characters, the familiar, all-male, down-and-out digs, the on point wisecracks. At the end of this taut 110 minutes, all in one act, we are treated to some genuine dramatic architecture. After Tommy’s crusade to save Aimee collapses under the weight of her past, her pimp, her “not being quite right in the head,” Doc offers a monologue in which he says that he saw the three wise men, in a dream, sitting in Tommy’s room. Being very modern star gazers, they told him that when entering a Black Hole you could never come out the other end, wormhole style, because at that level of gravity time slows down to a literal stop. It is easy to take this as symbolism for Tommy’s life. We have the drama of living without drama. The arc of this character is that his life is perpetually flat. He changes because we see him face the pain of knowing that he will never change. Tommy is holding on to what little he has left and can only just keep that much within his grasp.
Then Doc offers another pearl of wisdom. Apparently death comes in the finest of disguises. It happens within your life. You know it when suddenly everything you wanted comes to you on its own. A knock on the door. Aimee enters. Curtain.
Knowing that McPherson thinks of his plays in theological terms helps with this. McPherson said in an interview “There’s a feeling of compassion around this play . . . the darkness and the audience is God, looking on with benevolence and forgiveness. The darkness of the theatre is the unknown . . . the all-powerful thing you can’t know.”
Has Tommy died? Earlier, there was a scene where Maurice told Tommy, just after he was forced to abandon his escape fantasy with Aimee, that he was leaving the house/hotel to him. Tommy will not escape. No larger life awaits. Once again the cruel box score: Dreams 4; Destiny 5. Tommy is so stunned at the irony and this development that he sits for a full minute. Everyone around him keeps talking. He gapes at open space.
But with Aimee’s return, perhaps Tommy was indeed rewarded for his Good Samaritanism. He will go on, but not like before. He will have someone to love, someone who needs him and appreciates his concern, if she doesn’t return his admiration. Perhaps the night came alive with a spirit that heard his cry. When Tommy slowed down and everyone else in the play didn’t, was that the crossing over? Perhaps Tommy was clinging to something more than just his own life. Perhaps.
Dr. Wallace Ross