"St. Nicholas"

By Conor McPherson
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan Theater, Boston Center for the Arts' Black Box
Through October 2, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Sugan Theatre's Carmel O'Reilly has cast a great local actor in the role of a lifetime, and it gives me much pleasure to be able to announce: Richard McElvain is magnificent in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas". Anyone who loves acting and is within commuting range of Boston: Re-arrange your life if necessary; but, whatever it takes, don't deny yourself the experience of seeing this superb performance. Hurry-- the BCA's Black Box holds under one hundred seats and the run ends next weekend. McElvain, relatively unknown to the general public but well respected in the theatre community as a consummate character actor, an actor's actor, brings an additional skill set to McPherson's solo drama, which proves the best possible equipment for bringing it to full and perfect life-- the qualities of a complete storyteller. McElvain has honed the spellbinding skills of direct performer-to-audience communication through years of touring Chamber Theatre adaptations of American literature to the schools, and by serving as director for master storyteller Jay O'Callaghan.

Author Conor McPherson is a young Irishman with the blessed gift for stories that seems to be given more often to the Irish than to the sons and daughters of other nations. Like "The Weir", celebrated in Dublin and London and now playing in New York, the play at the Sugan is pure narrative. Nothing happens during "St. Nicholas" except that the audience is told a story. The act of story-telling, the thread of attention that runs between the teller and the told and never slacks, becomes the action of the play. McElvain is a marvelous teller, his weary voice alive with layers of pride and pain reaching out of the darkened theatre to catch your consciousness and bind you to "the man". When the darkness thins, the actor is alone on a stage streaked with light the amber color of old whiskey splashed against the spare hewn timbers of the Black Box set-that's-not-a-set, devised by J. Michael Griggs. Every word McElvain's "man" says is connected like a bead in a necklace to the one before and the one after. Words fired in the crucible of his imagination enter your consciousness more vivid in description than the events of life itself, a kind of heightened fever dream that forces you to live intensely in that nightmare moment as if that particular moment summed up everything that had gone before and contained within it the promise and threat of everything that may happen in the future.

I sat with maybe a dozen other people in an audience at the Boston Center for the Arts more than a decade ago, watching McElvain play British fascist Oswald Mosely in what was one of the most brilliant bits of acting it has ever been my privilege to witness. I remember feeling such a rush of sadness as we happy few applauded the actor's bow, realizing that the brief run was over and that there was no way I could come again and bring all the people I knew who could appreciate what McElvain had accomplished-- a pinnacle of excellence in the actor's art. I've seen McElvain in a variety of plays since, and he has never been less than extraordinarily good in a variety of roles. Recently Newton's New Rep used McElvain's talents to turn A. R. Gurney's sentimental canine comedy "Sylvia" into a profound meditation on human nature that just happened to be hilarious, and to enliven "Twelfth Night" with a world class Malvolio:"a tight, twitty curlicue of a power mad prig", to quote my AisleSay review. But watching the actor hold the BCA stage for over two hours of solo tour de force-- hours that fly by, hours that seem like minutes-- is awe inspiring. McElvain is alone, but he conjures up a whole world, worlds within worlds: family and colleagues, victims and enemies, visions and demons, Dante and Beatrice, vampires....

Although McElvain's voice, whether spinning out charm in a melodious brogue or vomiting guttural curses, is rich and flexible, his physical presence lacks what's ordinarily tagged as "star quality". His is not the figure that draws your eye when another character is speaking. His round moon of a face is expressive rather than impressive-- so he's often cast as some sort of schulmp. The nameless character McElvain plays in "Saint Nicholas" is one of those: a bland surfaced loser aboil with inward rage, notable mainly because his envious energies are loosed on Dublin's theatre. Employed as drama critic by a leading newspaper, this very unpleasant middle aged person is a minor celebrity in the theatre's narrow circle, battening on its creators and taking a petty tyrant's sick pleasure in their fearful dependence on him. He tells us that he does what he does because it is so temptingly easy. He has a knack, a facility for stringing words, such that he doesn't have to work at his job-- he just tosses it off his week's assignments in hour. He "never went to the trouble of forming opinions; I just had them." It is a delicious-- but indigestible-- treat for him, that those arbitrary and unreflective opinions are matters of intense importance to the actors and directors and writers whose creativity he recycles to eke out his secondary life. Unfortunately, to keep his opinions unreflective, to steer his mind and conscience away from consequences and keep his accidental judgments and casual slaughters from turning inward, the critic must spend most of his waking life numbly, faux gregariously and recklessly drunk.

One night, a certain actress playing Salome moves with a certain grace, and that movement of her arm beckons the critic out of the circle of hell that is his accustomed place and into the unfamiliar hell of reverent infatuation. When the cast of "Salome" drops in for an after opening drink at the pub where the critic is knocking back his whiskies, the actress Helen's grace is even more potent in her own person. Fair but inadequately talented Helen and the second rate show she stars in are already drawn and quartered in his dashed off review-- it will be published at dawn. But the critic can not resist trying to get near the woman who has captured his frozen heart, and he sails toward her on a flood of flattering lies: the production! the direction! the acting! too good for provincial Dublin, London alone can appreciate work of such superlative quality! His flattery works well enough that he joins the cast's party, and even has Helen accepting his offer of a ride home when the pub has closed. The next time they meet his story is that his editor tossed out his review full of praise and substituted the editor's own negative opinion in the column under the critic's name: in consequence, the critic has quit his job in a huff and followed "Salome" to London. There, he meets a handsome and charming but shadowy figure who is certain that the newly unemployed critic is the right man for a job he has on offer--- a job that begins late at night, and involves visiting pubs and restaurants and engaging the interest of good looking young people......

Carmel O'Reilly is a connoisseur of Irish playwriting, with an ear trained to pick up the subtlest poetry in the various vernaculars. Fine actress that she is herself, she is also a connoisseur of the actor's art. Whatever specific elements of this miraculous amalgamation that is on stage at the BCA should be credited to her direction, hers is the vision that saw the potential for greatness in the material, and the one whose secure artistic sense gave the actor the courage to dig deep for the boldest choices to bring it to life.