Irish playwrights have been all over North Texas stages in recent years. Conor McPherson’s ‘The Night Alive,’ currently at the Undermain Theater, is the third of his haunting plays the company has staged. Meanwhile, Martin McDonagh’s dark comedies have been presented by Kitchen Dog, WaterTower, Second Thought and Stage West — at least. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks takes stock of this Gaelic invasion with Justin Martin.
I understand Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh have had something of a feud. Or at least a rather chilly exchange. What’s that all about?
I’ve seen ‘In Bruges,’ the 2008 film that McDonagh wrote and directed.
If I remember correctly: hookers, dwarves, violence and cocaine. Yeah, it’s pretty appropriate.
Well then, what about McPherson’s own plays?
Now, McDonagh would have put it front and center. McDonagh is all about showing us, sticking it to us, hammering away, making it so we can’t look away, whether that’s comedy or violence. Theater to him is about immediacy — being alive and present in the room when something happens. That’s made his work very theatrical, very exciting, especially for younger audiences.
But I also think that penchant for bigger jolts, more attention-getting effects is a reason he’s almost abandoned theater these days for film (although the word is he has a new play in the works for the Royal Court called ‘Hangmen’). McDonagh has even said he has little respect for the traditions of theater and more respect for film. And that preference for ham-fisted violence and comedy is also why, I think, with ‘Seven Psychopaths’ — the film McDonagh made after ‘In Bruges’ — he fell into the Tarantino trap of over-the-top absurdity. The bloodshed and the humor feel manipulative and cynical.
In contrast, Conor McPherson is about nudging and suggesting things – particularly otherworldly, unseen things. He has said, growing up in Ireland, you’re always aware of being on the far western edge of Europe. The Atlantic Ocean is the great beyond. So instead of the kind of ultra-splattery violence you get in Martin McDonagh’s writing, McPherson’s plays tap into the moodier, even melancholy traditions of the Irish ghost story. They’re all about what’s out of our control, what’s beyond.
It can be almost a tic in his plays, this need to imply there’s something else behind our accepted reality. McPherson himself has directed and co-written a film, called The Eclipse,’ came out in 2009. I think it’s seriously underrated by horror movie fans, people who want those big, gotcha, shock effects. The film actually conveys a creepy sense of loss, of unfinished emotional business of ghosts representing not letting go of this life. As they say, the movie casts a really nice pall.
At one point, a British novelist, played by Iben Hjejle, does a reading at a literary festival. And what she says sounds like McPherson’s defense of the ghost story. Her character reads about how seeing a ghost splits your mind between what’s real and what’s not and changes your sense of the world. The character in her story wakes up and sees this dim figure sitting on her bed with its mouth open and its eyes mournful. Open-mouthed, unspeaking apparitions appear throughout McPherson’s works: There’s a world beyond this one, it seems, but it can’t tell us much, we’ll never get the answers we really want. And the woman in the novelist’s story realizes, at that moment, fully for the first time, that she would die, her husband would die, all her children would die — and “that what she was looking at was reality.” Reality, in this case, means knowing — with complete, painful finality — about loss and death, about our suffering after death yet also knowing you’ll never know anything more. It’s a turmoil of insight and ignorance.
That’s why McPherson’s plays all have this disturbing unease — even as they take place in perfectly ordinary settings with average people being pushed by cruel events. It’s his way of seeing the world but it’s also a theatrical effect: The spooky, the otherwordly, has a bigger impact when it happens in this context of the utterly commonplace. Or even the harshly real.
That harsh reality is what’s lacking in the tone of the Undermain’s ‘The Night Alive.’ Directed by Dylan Key, it’s a good but not particularly vivid production. Bruce Dubose and Scott Latham play partners. Tey’re both middle-aged losers who work odd jobs together and live in this dead-end basement apartment. Yet the actors are both a little too sweet and funny. So the play feels slack. Here’s Latham’s character, Doc, telling Dubose, who plays Tommy, and Katherine Bourne, playing Aimee, about a mysterious coincidence, the kind his dreamy character is fascinated by:
Doc: “I heard, on the news that they were hoping the pope was going to be able to walk down to the graveyard by himself. And the next day, the pope was dead.”
Tommy: “What do you make of that?”
Aimee: “That’s insane.”
Doc: “Yep. Crazy.”
That’s kind of creepy.
The funny thing, though?
And that wasn’t by McDonagh or McPherson. It was by Enda Walsh. He’s probably the least known of the three — except for the musical, ‘Once’ — but I think he may wind up the most compelling, the most versatile playwright of the bunch.