It may have been a matinee, but Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive is a spirited and small show that will leave the audience in contemplation. Currently playing a limited engagement at The Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, the show’s grimy basement interior setting feels familiar, but it’s the polish of the actors that makes it worthwhile. Theater arts can be a tricky balancing act between audience and performer, especially when they are within spitting distance of the audience.
And there was plenty of spit: The Night Alive is about a man named Tommy (Barry McEvoy), who has a questionable job circumstance and has taken in a brutalized younger woman named Aimee (Mollie Goff). Tommy has lived in his Uncle Maurice’s basement since his separation from his ex-wife and his Aunt’s passing. The two do not get along, especially when it comes to responsibilities and priorities. Tommy’s learning-disabled friend Doc (Brian Mallon) occasionally squats in Tommy’s part of the house. As Aimee heals from her wounds, the problems she is running from become Tommy’s as well.
The play itself is often intense. There is violence both on stage and off, and domestic violence is at the center of the story. Characters have humor at the ready to iron out the tension. For example, Doc enters the house at midnight one night with a book and a CD called “The Rockin’ Sounds of the Vuvuzela.” Uncle Maurice’s drunken stumbling careens between funny and sad.
The central relationship between Tommy and Aimee is interesting, but Aimee’s facial expressions are distracting. The audience-actor-space relationship is pulled out of balance; it’s turned up as though the room is considerably larger than it is. The same issue occurs with a character who enters later. The volume of his performance put the question in mind of how on earth the Uncle doesn’t hear all the shouting coming from his basement. Both performance choices are simply not realistic for the size of the venue.
The real draw of the show is Tommy’s complicated relationship with Doc. Without Doc, Tommy would be even more of a bitter man, but their combined humor provides levity in an otherwise dramatic story. The two actors play well off one another, as though they are old friends, and though neither of them is necessarily heroic they do pose questions worth contemplating. The Night Alive is like learning about your neighbors, and is well worth the time.
The Night Alive runs through April 9.