It's almost as if St. Patrick's Day has arrived a month late. All week long Riverdance, the Irish musical phenomenon, will be clogging its way across the vast Fox Theatre stage. Then on Monday and Tuesday night, in stark contrast to that blaze of Gaelic melody and energy, Joe Hanrahan will conclude a three-week run in the much quieter, much simpler -- yet in its own direct way no less enthralling -- St. Nicholas, a monologue by the young Irish playwright Conor McPherson.
Although the back room at McGurk's Irish Pub in Soulard doesn't accommodate a large crowd, Hanrahan is performing this 85-minute confession before a distinguished audience. Photos of celebrated Irish dramatists -- Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and the like -- peer down from the walls onto the makeshift stage, reminding the viewer of how the Irish love a good yarn.
"When I was a boy," this yarn begins, "I was afraid of the dark." As an adult our narrator, a vitriolic Dublin theater critic, is still afraid of the dark. For it's when sitting in dark theaters that he's most painfully aware of his own bankrupt imagination. Bereft of creativity, cynicism weighs on him like a millstone. When he's feeling generous, he might at best deign to bestow a mixed review. But because he lacks any original talent himself, usually he uses his reviews to attack those functioning artists of whom he is most envious.
Playwright McPherson (best known in America for his drama The Weir) devotes the early minutes of this 1997 play to establishing the theater critic as a metaphorical vampire, doing his utmost to suck the life -- or at least the enthusiasm, the joy, the desire -- out of those who are able to do what he cannot. The plot kicks in when our protagonist, to his enormous surprise and discomfort, finds himself attracted to a mediocre but beautiful actress who is appearing in Oscar Wilde's Salome. While pursuing the young actress, our metaphorical vampire encounters the real thing. As Act Two begins, the critic is enlisted as a pimp for a coven of blood-suckers.
"I can't overstate their power to distract," the (nameless) critic informs us with typically humorous understatement -- at which point one wishes Bram Stoker, the Irish-born author of Dracula, also was staring down from McGurk's wall.
Among even avowed theater lovers, there are those who would rather handle snakes or get tetanus shots than sit through one-person shows, and often with good reason. But St. Nicholas -- part drama, part short story -- provides a compelling and very funny narrative. (I cannot explain the significance of the title, but be assured that this is not a Christmas story. It's better suited to Halloween.) Although there are a lot of words here, the writing never gets ahead of the viewer. Rather, this rich, descriptive, salty language commands the listener's attention.
Under the direction of Sarah Whitney, Joe Hanrahan is riveting from beginning to end. How can the same character be both natty and disheveled? Hanrahan pulls it off. He imposes upon his critic enough of an accent to remind us we're not in Kansas, but he's not so thoroughly Irish as to be incomprehensible. Clarity is paramount to this production. In a performance larded with contempt and self-loathing, Hanrahan presents us with one of those human train wrecks at which you can't help but stare. He effortlessly reels out his narrative the way a fisherman reels out a line.
It's not often that theatergoers have the opportunity to hear an Irish ghost story told in an Irish pub. Even the intrusive crowd noises from the next room seem apt rather than distracting. And in contrast to a regular theater, here you can nurse the beverage of your choice while the blarney unspools. St. Nicholas, an engaging morality tale about the subtle distinction between living and being undead, offers an unconventional and invigorating evening of theater.
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