nytheatre.com review by James Comtois
June 30, 2010
What separates vampires from humans is that, unlike humans, vampires can't reflect. That doesn't just mean they can't cast reflections in mirrors, but that they have no conscience. If they want something, they take it, without any consideration of the consequences. They have no sense of restraint when it comes to their appetites, and their only regret is that they can no longer feel regret.
This is the central description of vampires in St. Nicholas, Conor McPherson's compelling one-man show/Irish ghost story—currently being directed by Jesse Edward Rosbrow and performed by Darrell James at the WorkShop Theatre—about a Dublin theatre critic who wants power over those weaker than him, and eventually finds himself amidst a group of legendary bloodsucking monsters who appear to offer him just that.
James (in an astounding performance—more on that later) plays the aforementioned cynical and admittedly jealous critic (jealous because he wishes he could be creative like the playwrights, directors, and actors he savages in his reviews) who gets off on wielding power over the productions he sees. He tells the story of how he becomes infatuated with an actress named Helen in a production of Salome and—in a moment of reckless abandon—lies to the cast and crew about how wonderful he thought the production was, forgetting that his scathing review has already been shipped and will be in the following morning's paper. His infatuation with Helen soon gives way to obsession, and before long he's abandoning his family and following the company to London trying to convince Helen and the company that his editor is the one who altered his review, and that he's resigned in protest.
One thing leads to another, and his adventure following Helen into London leads him to meeting a charming and mysterious figure named William, who lures him into the world of vampires.
From there, the former critic lives among the vampires and acts as their ersatz Renfield. He trolls the London pubs and clubs looking for hot young things to lure into the vampires' lair (he apparently becomes supernaturally charming to the potential prey, a quality he'd not had before). He now feels a sense of power he sought after—but never quite found—via his eviscerating theatre reviews, and enjoys being around these creatures who have no ability to reflect on their actions.
The play has fun toying with some of the well-known "rules" of vampire lore, coming up with inventive ways of dispelling some major ones (these vampires can go out in the sunlight, they just choose not to) and confirming some lesser-known rules (apparently surrounding your house with grains of rice will keep the vamps away). But they do like to drink blood, enjoy appealing to humans' more base desires, and are, of course, incredibly dangerous.
The brilliant aspect of McPherson's script is how effortlessly it flows from the realistic to the absurd to the supernatural, as if the chain of events presented in the story was the most natural—if not only—way things could have progressed. In fact, many aspects of the tale the critic tells are downright silly, but since it's so entertaining, it hardly matters. It's solid storytelling at its best.
The show also works because of its star. James is absolutely mesmerizing in this. With a pitch-perfect Irish accent and engaging presence, he hooks you in from his first entrance and never lets go until curtain call. The big challenge of one-man shows is that much of the burden of commanding the audience's attention from beginning to end is rested firmly on the performer's shoulders, and James is more than up to the task. He's hypnotic.
Rosbrow's direction is also smart and simple. With some rare, singular exceptions, he has James sitting down in a chair center stage for the bulk of the brisk 90-minute runtime. He clearly trusts both his actor and his material (with good cause), and wisely abstains from tarting up the proceedings with bells and whistles.
St. Nicholas is about a man first seeking power, then eventually a conscience; it takes living with those who can't reflect for him to realize this. This is an absorbing story told by a masterful performer.