Review: “St. Nicholas”

Brendan Coyle in the Donmar Warehouse’s production of St. Nicholas. (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Jan. 27
Tickets: $31-$85
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

There are two reasons to catch the Donmar Warehouse revival of Conor McPherson’s 1997 “St. Nicholas” at Goodman Theatre.

The most obvious one is the chance to see multi-talented actor Brendan Coyle, best known here as the complicated valet Mr. Bates in “Downton Abbey,” performing live on stage. The second, now that McPherson is considered one of Ireland’s greatest living playwrights, is to gain some insight into his preoccupations before he wrote more compelling plays such as “The Seafarer” and “Shining City.”

“St. Nicholas,” which has nothing to do with Santa Claus, is billed as a vampire story, but that’s a little misleading, though there are vampires involved. It’s more about an arrogant middle-aged alcoholic’s mental breakdown and how he finds a kind of redemption. The 90-minute monologue also is about the process of storytelling and discovering if you have a story to tell.

Coyle plays an unnamed self-loathing, booze-guzzling theater critic who sets us up for a scary tale with his opening line, “When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark….,” then proceeds to explain that vampires are real and to divide his life into the time before and after his encounter with them. But as he draws us in with his engaging low-key style—Coyle is masterful at this—it also becomes clear that he views himself as a vampire of sorts, a hack who feeds off the artists he envies and assassinates in his reviews, who revels in his petty power, and who hates his colleagues as much as he does himself. He even tells us he’s “dead,” though he has a wife, daughter, and son.

After a build-up that’s arguably too long, this despicable character gets to the crux of his midlife crisis. And it turns out to be a cliché. The jaded critic falls for a young actress named Helen who is playing the title role in “Salome.” Detailing the grace of her limbs in a way that’s creepy in this #MeToo age, he even lies to the director at the after-party, saying he gave the show a favorable review. He becomes so obsessed, in fact, that he follows the company from Dublin to London, abandoning his prestigious well-paying job, family, and all.

It’s in London, following an embarrassing alcohol-fueled visit to the place Helen is staying, that he meets a vampire named William who invites him to the suburban house where he lives with six
gorgeous female vampires. William gives this anti-hero an attic room to live in and a job: to lure young people to the house for nightly parties that the vampire promises will leave them unharmed and not remembering what happened.

Endowed by William with the charm that enables him to do this job, the critic goes about it night after night. He’s increasingly aware that vampires have the power not so much to make us do what they want, but rather to make us want what they want. However, he eventually becomes disenchanted, causing him to reflect even more than before on his own behavior and on what separates humans and vampires. In a word or two, vampires have no moral compass or conscience, while men do.

Then one night Helen is in the group that the critic takes to the vampire house, leading to a disturbing denouement that brings him face-to-face with his own failures and causes him to reflect on the nature of love and hope.

Interestingly, it’s not exactly clear where he’s supposed to be when he’s telling this story. Still in the attic? Back in his Dublin office? Peter McKintosh’s scenic design, spookily lit by Matt Daw—with lots of candles for the second act—features windows plastered with newspapers, a desk and chair, lots of garbage scattered about, and a leaky ceiling. The critic occasionally fills his water glass from the bucket, as the drip, drip, drip joins the laughter (or cries) of children in the background and other components of Christopher Shutt’s sound design.

When the critic first enters wearing a black overcoat, he takes something from the pocket and scatters it around the stage in a semicircle. Only later do we learn that this is rice. While he tells us that most of the myths about vampires aren’t true, he also says that if you throw down some rice, they’ll feel compelled to count every grain, distracting them from anything else.

Rice does figure in the climax of the critic’s tale, though I’m still puzzling over the import of this vampire Achilles heel. I’m also musing over William’s story-within-the-story, which is about a woodsman, an old man in a well, and a watch that allows one to travel back in time.

But I’ll let you ponder these intricacies, as well as the meaning of the title “St. Nicholas,” as you soak up Coyle’s rich performance. His character may be deeply distasteful, and the play flawed, but watching him is a treat. I only wish the Owen Theatre were smaller, so he could walk among us, which would be even more mesmerizing.