The Alley’s ‘St. Nicholas’: A Review

25 Jul

By JOHN DeMERS

This self-proclaimed “vampire story” by Irish playwright Conor McPherson is intended for mature audiences – and not primarily because it’s frothing with filthy language, including a couple words not heard often on the Alley stage. No, the play is intended for mature audiences because it takes God’s own time getting around to what it seems to be promising, and then feels no moral compulsion to actually deliver it. 

An audience has to be extremely mature to put up with that. 

If anything, it may be the packaging of St. Nicholas that seems odd. The Summer Chills series at the Alley tends to be like summer reading – you know, those books you take to the beach. They may be dark and scary but always in a melodramatic, entertaining, wildly diverting sort of way. Most Chills are fast-paced like that, and many carry the lighthearted stamp of either recent wit or century-old seriousness now reduced to camp. Playing in the (much larger) Hubbard Theater while St. Nicholas plays the Neuhaus, Agatha Christie’s whodunit The Mousetrap is, by contrast, the perfect Summer Chill. 

As delivered as a tour de force, two-act monologue by company member James Black, St. Nicholas has a ton of things to admire – even if it seems to fail the most basic tests of Summer Chilldom. It is a remarkable opportunity for a remarkable actor to command the stage, sharing focus with only a stuffed chair and a table holding an often-used whiskey bottle. The entire narration is addressed to the audience, though no adequate reason is given for being so: a troubled man speaking to his therapist, for example, or a man on Death Row giving his final confession. This unnamed Man simply talks because it’s what he does, occasionally touching on the subject that brought most people in through the doors. Vampires. 

Vampires are hot stuff now, of course – a fact that may or may not have prompted the Alley’s programming decision. Certainly this show is nothing like True Blood on HBO or the Twilight stories in book or movie form. Despite the play’s claims that real vampires are ultimately more horrific than their fake Hollywood counterparts, it’s doubtful most people found these frightening at all. And the fact that their bite takes such a small toll – no, the victim doesn’t become a vampire but simply remembers having a nice time – has a tendency to undermine any and all chance of suspense. 

Still, it’s the sheer talkiness that undermines most. Black is extraordinary climbing up and sliding down hills of colorful images (as with most Irish writers), but what that English guy once said about “sound and fury” has to cross your mind once or twice. Extended dark lashings of theater critics, for instance, are well-put and sometimes richly deserved, but ultimately come off as far too “inside baseball.” More universal are the narrator’s twisted, embittered takes on love, life, family and just about anything else he mentions. And mentions. And mentions. Yet if some aspect of vampirism is intended to be a metaphor for something larger, less fanciful, I for one closed out the evening not getting it. 

A tip of the hat goes to Black for never letting us get bored. Partly, of course, we’re waiting for a thrill that never comes – the moment Van Helsing rips away the curtain to let the sun burn in and pounds that stake through the screaming vampire’s undead heart. But partly we’re fascinated by the seemingly unedited revelations of one very troubled mind. There are many chills during this dark and solitary journey we make with Black – they’re just not the summer kind.

Photo by Jann Whaley: James Black in St. Nicholas, at the Alley through Aug. 8.

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