By Conor McPherson
Directed by Marlyn Robinson
Through Nov. 24 at the Performance Workshop Theatre
St. Nicholas , the new production at the Performance Workshop Theatre, gets off to an unpromising start. The set is spartan: three blackened walls, three wooden beams, a barstool, and a utility lamp clamped to a mic stand. The entire cast is one older man in a tan trench coat and a loosened brown tie who proceeds to tell us in great detail how he wasted his life. And yet, by the time intermission arrives an hour later, we are so enthralled by his tale that we can't wait for the bathroom break to end so we can get back to our seats and hear what happens next.
We are drawn in by a perfect match between an actor and a playwright. The actor is Marc Horwitz, co-founder of the PWT and four-time winner of this paper's "Best Actor" award. The playwright is Conor McPherson, the Dublin native who has won awards for not only plays such as The Weir and The Seafarer, but also for films such as Saltwater and The Eclipse. His 1997 script for St. Nicholas centers on a man who tells us everything about himself but his name. He's not an attractive human being; he's a drunk, adulterer, detached father, pompous pedant, and jaded cynic, but there's something about McPherson's witty words and Horwitz's roguish charm that keeps us interested.
We're amused because McPherson has taken aim at every playwright's object of paranoia and resentment-the theater critic. Horwitz's character is Dublin's top drama critic in the early '90s, and he abuses the power of his position in every way imaginable. As he paces the bare stage, he grins with sly pleasure at every single ethical lapse. "People were afraid of me," Horwitz declares, his eyes enlarged and shining, as if he were an Old West gunslinger who delighted in his terrifying reputation. It's not that he's without conscience, but that beleaguered section of his brain is overwhelmed by an overdeveloped id, an id that has soon infected the audience with vicarious selfishness.
There's something else that makes us rush back at intermission, a phrase he uses to introduce the tale of his journalism career: "back before I met the vampires." He keeps dropping hints that these are not metaphorical vampires but actual beings who changed his life forever. But McPherson teases us for a long time before he supplies more details. Just before intermission, the critic gets fed up with his own life's hollowness and decides to change it. Of course, he does that in the worst possible way, by developing a crush on a young actress and deserting his family and job to pursue her to London in hopes of an unlikely romance. This quixotic quest leads to a house full of vampires in the London suburbs.
Every vampire story has its own set of rules for what vampires can and can't do, and McPherson's regulations reduce the distance between them and us. These vampires can walk around in daylight and read the Bible without harm; it's just that they lack consciences, and the only food they can ingest is human blood. By appearing normal as they soullessly feed off the lives of others, they could be journalists-or playwrights-McPherson implies. Horwitz's ex-critic becomes the vampires' errand boy, luring attractive youngsters from London's pubs with the promise of an even better party back at the house.
McPherson supplies such vivid details in the monologue that we can imagine all the scenes: the critic's book-lined study in the Dublin suburbs, the dark, whiskey-stained bar of a Dublin pub, and the candlelit backyard of the vampires' house. And Horwitz adds the physical gestures to complete the pictures. He walks into a barroom with a know-it-all's swagger and walks out with a drunk's stumble. He lifts his arms with a young actress' grace. He raises his chin with a vampire's haughtiness. He falls backward in the swoon of a vampire's victim, and on those rare moments when his conscience gets the best of him, his eyes glisten like tiny pools.
At various times throughout the show, Horwitz walks within a few feet of the front rows at Performance Workshop Theatre's intimate space. Continuing with his monologue, he points at one audience member's face and nods, as if to say, "You know what I mean." And we do, despite the corruption of the protagonist's soul, despite the implausibility of the vampires-because the struggle between selfishness and reciprocity, the true subject of this seductive show, is a battle we've all fought.
For more information, visit performanceworkshoptheatre.org.