Carpe diem, the saying goes, but how does a person make the most of life when life has dealt a crappy hand?
That existential question occupies the philosophical heart of Conor McPherson’s play The Night Alive. His hero, Tommy (Rod Brogan), lives on the ground floor of a once-grand Edwardian house owned by his elderly widowed uncle Maurice (Noble Shropshire). Maurice keeps the top floors neat and tidy, but Tommy’s domain is a reflection of the current state of his life. His room is littered with piles of books, discarded furniture, scavenged housewares and cardboard boxes and plastic trash bags filled with a mixture of usable items and garbage. Like his possessions, Tommy himself is a castoff, a member of the vast social debris left behind in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy. With his buddy Doc (the excellent Ciaran Byrne), Tommy ekes out a living cleaning out other people’s junk, which he also seems to hoard, both in his home and in an offsite “lockup.” He’s a mess in every way: he eats dog biscuits instead of cookies, he has to reuse the same euro to keep the electric meter running, and the wreckage of his life has also left an ex-wife and two teenaged kids in its wake.
When the play opens, a trip to the local shop for a late-night snack has taken an unexpected turn: Tommy has rescued a young woman, Aimee (Hayley Nielsen), from a battering at the hands of a man Tommy presumes to be her boyfriend. She’s in rough shape – aside from her bloody nose, she also seems to be in a state of psychological shock – and Tommy offers to put her up until she can get herself together emotionally and financially. This being a contemporary Irish play, you’d be right in guessing that Aimee will bring violence into Tommy’s world: when her psychopathic boyfriend Kenneth (Brendan Griffin) traces her to Tommy’s apartment, he introduces a vicious mayhem that completely upends Tommy’s life.
The play tells what seems, on its surface, to be the fairly straightforward, and often quirkily humorous, story of a two down-and-out people who might, together, find a way to escape their desperate situations. But there is also something mysterious hovering around the edges of that story, a something intimated in the play’s opening and closing moments, when Tommy’s room hovers in the void of a star-filled night. The mystery also seeps through when Doc – a Holy Fool if ever there was one – recounts his prescient dreams about future events and black holes, dreams that challenge both the linearity of time and the finality of death.
But although this mystery seems intended to suffuse the story with a sense of our connectedness to the infinite, much of the play’s action falls short of being intriguingly mysterious and instead remains merely puzzling. About two-thirds of the way through the performance, I could not shake the feeling that I had somehow missed a crucial piece of narrative information. And perhaps I’m overthinking it all, but the deliberately perplexing ending – which has a sort of Sixth Sense quality to it insofar as it provides information that seems intended to shed a new light on everything that has gone before – only further deepened my mystification. I don’t doubt that the ambiguity of the final scene will make for some hefty debate over drinks after the show; whether or not the play fully earns that payoff may be yet another matter for debate.