By: Conor McPherson
At: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: GoodmanTheatre.org/StNicholas; $31-$85. Runs through: Jan. 27
Artists are suspicious of critics. How can a person who does not create pick apart another's creation, they wonder.
They might be especially suspect of Brendan Coyle's cynical critic in St. Nicholas, now playing at Goodman Theatre after a run at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Coylebest known for his roles on Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candlefordplays a man so spiritually bankrupt, he has no objections to procuring flesh for vampires. His command of playwright Conor McPherson's combined imagery and seediness make this production one to ponder for a good long while.
When we are first introduced to the theatre critic, he emerges from the darkness, sheltered by papered over windows and protected by a ring of rice he pours on the floor. We instantly question his motives. He tells us he was at the top of his game professionally in Dublin, but he cared little for anyone or anything around himnot his family, not the actors whose careers he influenced, and not the work he thoughtlessly typed out for his reviews. It is not until he becomes emotionally entangled with an actress, and then falls into the company of mesmerizing young creatures of the night, that he begins to see what his life lacks, and questions whether or not he can put it right.
If you wonder why I have written so little about actual vampires being a part of this world, then I assume you have never seen a Conor McPherson play. His inspiration for St. Nicholas came to him in a dream, in which he was bitten by a vampire, and then handed pain pills to deal with the supernatural event. His plays always place the fantastical squarely in our reality, so a play about a critic rediscovering his passion for story while encountering vampirism should not seem so off-kilter. For McPherson, it's that tension between us and the unknown that creates good theatre.
And McPherson has the sharp eye of director Simon Evans and the precise physicality of Coyle to keep the audience on edge throughout this existential crisis. Evans has Coyle command the stage as he might any pub, moving indiscriminately but claiming any space he takes, every gulp of water he drains. Coyle mesmerizes the audience in his own way, painting his character's drunken strolls and unfulfilled desires with merely the wave of his hands. His critic may be washed up and isolated, but you cannot look away as he weaves a story worth telling.
Peter Mckintosh's earthbound office set pays against Matt Daw's lights, which slowly dim over the course of the evening, only to paint the newspapered windows passionate hues of pink and red, showing us what's possible beyond what we can see. If critics cannot be trusted, then at least we learn in St. Nicholas that they can put on a show.