Rochester Community Players makes sense of the mess in ‘The Night Alive’ 

click to enlarge Matt Ames as Tommy and Cassie Buscemi as Aimee in Rochester Community Players' production of "The Night Alive." - PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • Matt Ames as Tommy and Cassie Buscemi as Aimee in Rochester Community Players' production of "The Night Alive."
The St. Patrick’s Day Parades might be over, but Rochester Community Players continues to honor Irish culture year-round through its ongoing RCP Irish Program. The latest in the series is “The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson, marking the theater troupe’s fourth time producing this contemporary Irish playwright. Jean Gordon Ryon directs a tight production of this peculiar 2014 comedy-drama about a group of low-income people struggling in Dublin, running at the MuCCC through April 8.

Audiences settling into their seats at the MuCCC are greeted by a mess. The stage is cluttered with stacks of newspapers piled on a chair, scattered Chinese take-out containers, paperbacks sprawled on the cot, trash bags and boxes littered on the floor, and an unmade bed. The crowded blue wallpaper and intricately patterned rug add to a feeling of busy unrest. The set, designed by Ken and Kathy Dauer, is perfect for this play, which focuses on messy people in messy situations.

This flat is home to Tommy, a man separated from his wife and kids and renting a room in his Uncle Maurice’s house. The play begins with him leading a young, injured woman into his apartment and tending to her bleeding nose. In a comedically awkward scene, the audience learns that Aimee has just been beaten up by an ex-boyfriend on the street, and Tommy offered to help. Somehow, they’re both wearing the same logo of a soccer player on their shirts, a hint that these strangers are meant to play a role in each other’s lives.

The production brings the audience into the world of Tommy’s flat through consistent, convincing Irish accents and simple but effective lighting and sound cues. Tommy, played by Matt Ames, has a heart of gold beneath his mischief. He might try to cheat his work friend Doc, played by David Byrne (no, not that David Byrne), out of his wages, but ultimately can be trusted to do the right thing. Uncle Maurice, played by Wyatt Doremus, is more than the crotchety man upstairs. He may not like that Tommy has invited Aimee — a prostitute — into his house, but he’ll still make her a boiled egg for breakfast.

The characters talk about the mundane things that get them through the day: deodorant, dental floss, water to rinse out shampoo. They just as regularly bring up larger, more serious topics like suicidal ideation, drugs, estrangement from children, and death. Knowing what the characters have to deal with makes their moments of clever dialogue and genuine affection all the more delightful. One of the high points is an impromptu dance and lip sync to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
click to enlarge Andreas Gabriel as Kenneth and David Byrne as Doc in "The Night Alive." - PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • Andreas Gabriel as Kenneth and David Byrne as Doc in "The Night Alive."
The final scene of the first act takes an abrupt tonal shift with the appearance of Aimee’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth, played with zealous creepiness by Andreas Gabriel, and a strange act of violence involving fake vampire teeth and a hammer. The second act goes down this darker path, punctuated by explosive yelling and physical conflicts conveyed through tense fight choreography by Alec Barbour.

Like the set, McPherson’s script is messy, perhaps intentionally so. The tone can be inconsistent, jumping from an act of violence to a drunken man’s comedic antics, and then to a moment of grief.

At times, the characters’ motivations are unclear. Aimee, played by Cassie Buscemi, in particular gets short shrift. Buscemi does her best with the material, but the script’s glimpses at a tragic backstory never fully morph into a convincing character. Through what may be a mishap in casting, Tommy appears old enough to be Aimee’s father. The play doesn’t acknowledge the dynamics of this age difference when their relationship becomes sexual and possibly romantic, leading to some confusing and uncomfortable moments.

The ending is ambiguous, ending on a more philosophical note than the early jokes about turnips and hand jobs may have suggested. Doc delivers a monologue with some of the most poetic language in the play, speculating on black holes and the nature of death. What is time? Is the night alive? This play has no easy answers, but suggests that meaning might be found somewhere in the mess.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at [email protected]. ​​

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