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Suburban Suckers

What happened to the horrifyingvampires of old?

Vampires just aren't that interesting anymore. They used to prey on innocent girls, sucking blood from their tender throats and virtue from their fragile souls. Only coming out with the darkest moon, they lived on the spooky fringes of the social order. And best of all, they haunted and hunted with unspeakable desires. What happened to those horrifying creatures of old? Vampires have gotten pretty lame.

Maybe the suburban vampires in Conor McPherson's 1997 St. Nicholas would have seemed fresh before Twilight, but I'm tired of polite, nonthreatening vampires like the ones in this play, now running at the Alley Theatre.

McPherson is perhaps most famous for The Weir, a lovely Olivier Award-winning script about a group of Irish neighbors who sit around telling stories as they get soused in a pub one melancholy eve. St. Nicholas is also about the art of storytelling, but here there is only a single character, and he takes center stage, spinning his yarns straight out to the audience. Like The Weir, this play also concerns drinking and the loneliness of the human condition, but here McPherson has layered in a weirdly un-scary tale about a vampire named William.

In the first act, before the vampire shows up, the writing is powerful. Onto an almost naked stage strolls the only character, a nameless, angry theater critic, played with rich depth of feeling and voice by the Alley's James Black. McPherson, like most playwrights who put critics in their plays, has nothing good to say about them. The critic tells us that when he was writing about the theater, he was a "jealous" asshole who "rehashed columns," worked "about one solid hour" a day and had "no ideas" and "no real thoughts about things." Not only was his work miserable, but so was his home life. He didn't love his wife anymore, and his children were growing up into strangers. He drank, picked fights with theater people and was an all-around unlikable fellow. The only bright spot in his life was a lovely young actress named Helen. But he longed for her in secret, and ultimately, as is often the case in stories about middle-aged losers, it was a girl that got him into trouble.

It's when the critic tells the story of the night he met the actress in a bar and tricked her director into thinking that he'd given her show a good review that McPherson's writing shimmers with the sort of aching truth that makes live theater and good stories so powerful. And Black seems to know this story — he clearly knows how to tell it. He literally reaches his hands out into the empty space in front of him, gripping hold of the lonely confession. This is a sad, dark story about a man who finds himself at middle life with absolutely nothing to show for it. And when McPherson sticks with this, he is surprisingly good, especially since he wrote this play when he was in his twenties.

But at the end of Act One, when the critic recounts how he lost the girl and met a vampire, the fire goes out of the writing. Act Two is the story of that encounter. The critic tells us how he learned that most of what we know about vampires is wrong — they aren't really all that bad. They live in the suburbs and throw fabulous parties. As far as the victims go, "nobody dies," and besides, the victims forget everything by morning. Turns out, all the bad stuff we know about vampires is just superstition. So they aren't that compelling as mythical creatures go.

In the end, the only thing the vampires did for the critic was give him something to live for. "Most important. Over everything else. I had a story," he tells us. But the critic had a story before the vampire ever showed up. And though there's a fairly obvious metaphor here in the idea that critics are nothing but harmless leeches, the idea that life can leave you so empty at the halfway mark is much scarier and much more affecting than any suburban vampire.

Even the actor doesn't seem to believe in the second act as much as he does the first. Act Two opens with some good and creepy lighting. Kevin Rigdon's design casts big shadows across the back of the stage, and there is an appropriate gothic vibe going. The wonderful Black can make lines like "They have power" sound pretty ominous. But he can't spin a story that doesn't really go anywhere into gold with just the strength of his voice. And on opening night, somewhere along the halfway mark of Act Two, he even started to stumble with his lines a bit, something the consummate professional never does.

The material just loses steam. But these days, that seems to be the way with those blood suckers. As mythical monsters go, vampires have lost their mojo.

 
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