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‘The Night Alive’ at Steppenwolf: It’s three guys, girl and thug looking for answers in life’s rubble

Submitted by on Oct 14, 2014 – 10:26 pm

Newcomer Aimee (Helen Sadler) spices the lives of Tommy (Francis Guinan, left) and Doc (Tim Hopper). (Michael Brosilow)“The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson, at Steppenwolf Theatre through Nov. 16. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

At the center of “The Night Alive,” Conor McPherson’s wry and compassionate spin on the human comedy, are three men grappling with life near its baseline. And in Steppenwolf Theatre’s unglossed, touching perspective on the play, these ordinary guys find in each other the redemptive qualities of connection, meaning and purpose. 

Landlord Maurice (M. Emmet Walsh) keeps a close eye on the apartment and its inhabitants. (Michael Brosilow)As in McPherson’s oft-produced jewel “The Seafarer,” a man tossed about on life’s high rolling waves finds salvation when it might be least expected. Middle-aged Tommy is divorced, alienated from his family and getting by in a dumpy apartment owned by his curmudgeonly Uncle Maurice. Tommy seems to have one friend, slow-witted Doc, who shows up at odd times like a stray cat.

Into this mélange of muddling males comes Aimee, a sort of low-intensity prostitute whose specialty is manual stimulation. Actually, Tommy brings her home – another stray cat – after finding her beaten up on the street. Though she doesn’t really do or even say much, Aimee will change Tommy’s life, if not shorten it: Aimee is tracked to her new digs by her very unsavory boyfriend, who might fairly be pigeonholed as a sociopath.

What happens in “The Night Alive” is reminiscent of what happens in “The Seafarer.” You could say lyrical, loving flights of language happen. McPherson cherishes his forlorn, downtrodden characters – rather like Tennessee Williams, without the despair. Not all that much transpires in terms of plot, and the catalytic girl quickly becomes almost invisible, dispensable. The play’s charm, again like “The Seafarer,” lies in the bantering, by turns gruff and very funny, among the newly infatuated Tommy (Francis Guinan), his blustering landlord (M. Emmet Walsh) and his dopey pal Doc (Tim Hopper).

Doc (Tim Hopper) wrote down his dream about black holes in the cosmos. (Michael Brosilow)Doc, as the disarmingly ingenuous Hopper explains to Aimee, is not his real name. No, Doc is short for Brian. Seriously. He tried Bri, but that took almost as long to say as Brian, so he settled on Doc. One quick sound and you’re done; you don’t waste people’s time.

Hopper’s earnest, simple, vulnerable Doc – something of a Shakespearean fool — is utterly endearing. This soul of modest intellectual wherewithal also provides the play’s peak moment, when he describes at length (which he can do because he’s written it all down) a dream he had about the physics of black holes in the universe and their connection to the probability of the existence of God.

Of another existence, Tommy’s, Doc is the bane, one more distracting annoyance in the life of a man whose unkempt apartment pretty well sums him up. Guinan offers a visceral performance as a man on the edge of a breakdown, anxious and slowly losing ground in the big race. In the foundling Aimee (Helen Sadler), Tommy sees someone who needs him, someone whose youth and beauty represent a beacon of new possibility.

What he does not see is the ominous shadow that looms over his stressed damsel: the boyfriend (Dan Waller), who is neither boy nor friend. Here is the devil reincarnate from “The Seafarer,” an unholy terror whom Waller captures with maniacal conviction. This demon is lithe, muscular and ferocious. What use is a knight valiant armed with a sauce pot?

Tommy (Francis Guinan) occupies an apartment that resembles his life. (Michael Brosilow)Crisscrossing these scenes from Tommy’s fraught life is uncle-cum-landlord Maurice — elderly, prying, quick to accuse. Walsh makes a delightful old interloper, ever suspicious but never quite sure what’s going on right in front of him. They’re a bit like Larry, Moe and Curly, the landlord, the tenant and the fool. Except that their foibles have the ring of truth.

Director Henry Wishcamper’s guiding hand hovers palpably over split-second interaction that produces both riotous comedy and credible tension. Both of those elements also seem to spring naturally from the wreck of an apartment created by set designer Todd Rosenthal, with major contributions in Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes and Keith Parham’s lighting. It’s a smart package that makes “The Night Alive” a vivid treat.

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