At the Goodman Owen Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Irish playwright Conor McPerson calls his 1997 play “St. Nicholas” for no discernible reason. But there is more ambiguity in the 1 hour and 45 minute dramatic exercise (including intermission) than its title. What is unambiguous is the special performance that Brendan Coyle, the play’s single actor, offers to audiences at the Goodman Owen Theatre. About the merits of “St. Nicholas,” spectators may be allowed to disagree.
Brendan Coyle is an eminent Irish actor who has gained international celebrityhood as a star of the wildly popular British television series “Downton Abbey.”Goodman is importing ”St. Nicholas” to Chicago from London, where it was revived with considerable critical acclaim by the eminent Donmar Warehouse company.
Strictly speaking, McPherson’s work is a monologue rather than a conventional play. Coyle spends the entire evening speaking directly to the audience. It’s a one-way conversation without any artificial additional characters like off stage voices or an invisible personage at the other end of a telephone call. Coyle’s character is not given a proper name, but his occupation is vividly presented almost from the opening lines. The man is a drama critic, the kind of critic many theatergoers and members of the theatrical community loathe. He is pompous, self important, smug, and an abuser of his power to make or break careers (an abuse he seems to indulge in with some relish). The man has no qualifications for the position beyond a certain skill with words. He recognizes his lack of competence but that doesn’t derail an unearned cynicism that makes him a creature of fear and loathing to those who are subject to his critical whims.
The critic confides to the audience that he is not a happy man. While living and working in Dublin, he claims “I wasn’t dying, like you might think. I was dead.” So this emotionally and intellectually hollow man flees to London. There he accidentally meets a man named William, who happens to be a vampire. The last half of the story then turns into a kind of vampire narrative, but viewers expecting thrills and chills will be disappointed. There isn’t a single jolt of terror or gore in the production, at least the one presented at Goodman.
William the vampire is actually a pretty urbane and droll man, dismissing the usual vampire lore as superstition. Vampires come out at night, he says, because that is the best time to party. William doesn’t dislike garlic because of its anti-vampire potency. Garlic just gives him bad breath.
In London, the critic becomes infatuated with an actress named Helen, the star of the overwrought play “Salome.” Helen would seem to be a young woman of enticing beauty and limited acting skills. But that is good enough for the critic until the relationship ends and the critic returns to Dublin, making publicity hay out of the idea that he has just survived a nervous breakdown and is ready to begin chapter two of his life, perhaps a chastened and wiser man.
I suspect that “St. Nicholas” is a fairly boring reading experience. It requires the skills of a sensitive interpreter like Brendan Coyle to locate the script’s humor and storytelling powers and bring McPherson’s words alive within Peter McIntosh’s ramshackle single set of old furniture and windows papered over with newspapers (the critic’s past reviews, now treated like waste paper?)? The production is atmospherically lit in light and shadows by Matt Daw.
Coyle, presumably in consultation with director Simon Evans from the Donmar revival, lets his supple voice do most of the script’s heavy lifting. Physically, Coyle spends much of the playing time prowling around the stage when he isn’t sitting on a wooden or upholstered chair or the top of a desk. He occasionally raises his voice but primarily he speaks in the middle register, unobtrusively milking a line or expression for droll humor. There is nothing showy about Coyle’s acting but it is still a riveting performance that relies on timing, pace, facial expressions, and a captivating “this is just between you and me” rapport with the audience.
Spectators who are lured to the Goodman Owen Theatre by the expectation of a vampire drama that will break them into a suspense-drenched sweat will be disappointed. If you want a hair raising slice of theater, try “The Woman in Black” at the Royal George Theatre. “St. Nicholas” is for those who prefer their drama more suggestive and dense with subtlety. Certainly, viewers with a strong negative feeling toward drama critics will be eminently satisfied, at least for the first act. Once the vampire element is introduced, viewers may lose their way in the verbiage, leading to the final few verbal moments that contribute nothing to any kind of closure.
Overall, fans of “Downton Abbey” in general and Brendan Coyle in particular should be satisfied with “St. Nicholas” in its Donmar/Goodman form. Others may be bored by all the well wrought language that often takes the listener to no place in particular. Still, we probably won’t be privileged this season to be exposed to any performance more rewarding than Coyle serving up his deliciously hateful drama critic
The show gets a rating ofstars.
“St. Nicholas” runs through January 27 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 180 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $31 to $85. Call 312 443 3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/StNicholas.