Stages

Review: St. Nicholas Chillingly Blends Conor McPherson’s Storytelling and Brendan Coyle’s Acting

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Conor McPherson is a storyteller. That was his first love and he’s a master of the form, in the Irish storytelling tradition. Many of his early plays were monologue plays or built around storytelling. The Goodman Theatre brings us one of his fine examples, which premiered in 1997. St. Nicholas, starring English actor Brendan Coyle, is the chilling story of a cynical Dublin theater critic, fueled by alcohol, jealous of the successful creators, who basically goes through the motions of his so-called career. And he’s afraid of the dark, in so many ways.

“I often leave 10 minutes before the end of the play…. I’d written my review on the back of the program during the show and rang it in from my car,” he says.

St. Nicholas, directed by Simon Evans, is the Donmar Warehouse production, staged in London last September before transferring to the Dublin Theatre Festival in October.

Coyle is best known for his role as “Mr. Bates” in the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” and his fans will surely rush to see this play because of that connection. I have not seen even one episode of “Downton Abbey” (don’t judge me), so I don’t connect with him because of that. But he is a satisfyingly dark and gloomy writer/character, prowling the stage in the Goodman’s smaller Owen Theatre, as he tells the story of his venture into further darkness.

This unnamed character opens the play by saying, “When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark … What was there. And maybe one of the things I thought was there was vampires.” By midway through the play, he has fallen half in love with a beautiful actor named Helen, who is performing in Salome. He leaves Dublin, deserting job, wife and family, and follows her theater company to London. Totally pissed on many pints plus cheap Scotch, he takes a walk and ends up falling asleep in Crystal Palace Park, near the ruins of the Crystal Palace, Waking in the dark, he meets a man named William with whom he is instantly comfortable. “We shook hands. He was cool. Not cold, like you’d expect a vampire to be. He was just right.” Interval. Blackout.

Act two is the character’s adventures with the vampires, pimping to deliver them an assortment of attractive young partiers each night. William assures him that they leave unharmed and never remember being there.

William tells him about “a tradition in eastern Europe. ‘ You can keep a vampire away from your house by sprinkling rice on your windowsill. The vampire is compelled to count every grain, and luckily he’ll still be counting when the morning comes. And for some reason that’s sort of true.’ I wasn’t sure whether he was joking with me but he seemed to be serious. He told me that he had an overwhelming desire to know how many grains were in a pile.”

The critic remembers his wife and daughter and tries to miss them, but he can only remember them as they were years ago.

How did this man who despises his life and the theater become a critic? In a darkened theater, he’s faced with the work he can’t do—writing plays. He became a theater critic, he says, because, “I was a journalist. I was a lucky bastard. I was blessed, or cursed, whichever, with the ability to string words together…. And that’s all it was.”

Conor McPherson’s plays often have some kind of supernatural theme or element. That’s the case in some of his well-known plays, such as The Seafarer, The Weir and Shining City. I am puzzled over the title of this play, however. There are Christmas themes in McPherson plays such as Dublin Carol and The Seafarer. In St. Nicholas, there is one mention of Santa, as a way to light a stranger’s face, but “You can only do that to certain people for a certain time.” Is St. Nicholas meant to suggest the magic of the holiday or the magic of a night with the vampires?

I guarantee you that St. Nicholas will give you plenty to talk about when you have an after-theater libation with your friends. And that inspiration to discuss a play afterwards—whether for good or ill—is one of the great charms of going to the theater. Also if you happen to hate theater critics, St. Nicholas is for you.

St. Nicholas continues at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., through January 27. Running time is two hours with an intermission. Tickets are $31-$85, with discounts available. Goodman is also offering “A Conversation with Brendan Coyle” at 5pm Sunday, January 20, at the Owen Theatre; he will be interviewed by WBEZ weekend anchor Greta Johnsen. Tickets are $10-$25.

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