nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
October 20, 2010
I'm gonna cut to the chase: I enjoyed the hell out of Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Conor McPherson's one-man play, St. Nicholas, and I recommend you check it out. It just seems appropriate to avoid any sort of florid or obtuse introductions here—there's something about reviewing a play that spends a good majority of its time vivisecting the psyche of a theatre critic that makes one wish to dispense with the occupation's fineries and not stand on ceremony, as it were.
That being said, though, what fun would a review be if it didn't go into detail? So I suppose I'll go on.
If you're unfamiliar with St. Nicholas, you might want to get acquainted, as McPherson's play seems be experiencing a resurgence. This is the second New York production of the script in four months. It's not hard to see why it would be popular to produce. It's an intriguing story, well told (though, not unimpeachably so, as I'll get to later), it offers a unique twist on the ever-popular vampire myth, and, for the actor, it's an absolutely killer script to, if you'll permit me the pun (and why wouldn't you?), sink his teeth into.
However, it's easy to fall prey to simply summarizing St. Nicholas as "the play in which the theatre critic gets seduced by vampires." To do so is to minimize what McPherson is attempting (and, for the most part, succeeding) to say—much like The Weir (also currently enjoying a remount in Manhattan) and The Seafarer, McPherson's use of supernatural themes is rather cursory, meant to be the hook upon which his more human drama hangs. At its core, St. Nicholas isn't about vampires at all. It's a play about stagnation, about easy seduction, about an existential tipping point one man reaches when he realizes he's led an empty life concerned only with jealousy, pettiness, and a fleeting sense of superiority. In other words, as McPherson spells out near the end, it's about the monsters we become when we don't reflect.
To that end, McPherson uses the occupation of theatre critic to embody his narrator's wasted life—not (the reviewer quickly points out) that there's anything inherently wrong with the occupation itself or the people who choose to pursue it, but, in this particular case with this particular character, it is an easy shorthand for a person who lives his life nitpicking the art of others while being unable (really, afraid) to produce his own. And it's wholly appropriate, then, that our narrator falls in with The Vampires, as he refers to them from the beginning, after an impulsive and ultimately futile attempt to seduce an actress with whom he becomes obsessed. Despite the mythical beasts at its core, this is a distinctly modern tale of midlife crisis, and McPherson paints a beautifully realized portrait of a man beginning to feel like the living dead.
John Martello is an absolute delight in his portrayal of the theatre critic in question. It's his show alone and he carries it splendidly. His performance is charming and light, without being weightless, and his natural joviality works well to contrast the heavier moments the plot gives him. Also, and I mean this as high praise, he doesn't come across as some highly trained actor doing a one-man show—rather you can easily buy him as the man in the circumstances he purports to have gone through.
That brings me, however, to the few aspects of the script and the production that I found at least somewhat lacking—and while they ceased to be terribly bothersome by the end of the play, I cannot deny that they were sticking points for a good portion of my viewing experience. Foremost among them was the question of just who this character is talking to. The production begins with lights rising on Martello sitting in a chair. He takes in the audience with an almost surprised expression and then launches into his story. It started my mind down a path that McPherson's script doesn't directly address, namely what is the reality of the performance we're watching? Are we to assume that we're watching an actual one-man show put on by this theatrical critic? Or is it a theatrical confession, soliloquy-style? Who are we, to him, and why are we there? At one point the play's "convention" is even acknowledged and subverted, but nowhere is this convention fully established. Somewhere between the writing and the direction, it felt unclear.
Speaking of, Alex Dmitriev's direction is fluid and natural—you get the sense that he's wisely letting his actor and the script play, and the overall arc is very well etched. However, there were also times, especially during the first act, when the blocking, minimal though it is, seems rather arbitrary. The play is at its most riveting when Martello is simply seated, but there are moments when a rise or cross is put into action that isn't supported by a tonal or textual change. Also, as far as the script is concerned, if it weren't for the verve Martello and Dmitriev give to the production, I'm not entirely convinced that the script itself isn't less a play and more a really well-written short story.
However, I won't pretend that these are universal quibbles—chances are good you won't take issue with these admittedly specialized hang-ups. As the show makes clear, though, critics have to find something to nitpick. When it's honest and not abused, the act of observation and critique (which arguably saves our narrator's life in the end) is a necessary and human thing. After all, what sets us apart from the monsters we fear, what prevents us from being soulless creatures, is what we put forth to the world, what we synthesize from our experiences, what we eventually see in the mirror: reflection.