Irish playwright Conor McPherson wrote “St. Nicholas,” a supernatural tale that has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or the saint, 22 years ago. Rather, it’s the tale of one unnamed, middle-aged, cynical, disgruntled and disdainful Dublin theater critic who happens to have a problem with the drink and an unhealthy infatuation with a young actress named Helen.
Helen has appeared in a mediocre production of “Salome,” and the critic blasted it. He follows her to London – she is beautiful, after all. And oh, yes, he bargains with a modern-day vampire named William who he happens to meet in the Crystal Palace Park. You know the protocol: The vampire offers him a new, attractive, eternal life in exchange for the critic providing young ones.
“St. Nicholas” is a two-act solo monologue.
The first act recounts the critic’s actions, and the second, candlelit act is a reflection of his actions and where he ends up. Director Simon Evans has given us adventurous storytelling, a spooky, sleepover- or campfire-type story, but yet, there are problems.
The problem is not with the magnificent Brendan Coyle, known to audiences everywhere as Mr. Bates in “Downton Abbey” and Lennox in “Mary, Queen of Scots.”
No, Coyle’s vocals growl, tease, caress, mock and make us laugh and feel uncomfortable. He is at his best at the critic’s darkest and most moving moments, most compelling with his self-loathing.
Coyle’s physique is weary, withering, flamboyant, intimidating and very attractive. McPherson’s words and Coyle’s delivery paint pictures that ensnare you from the very beginning.
At times, you cannot hear a breath taken by anyone around you, but then problem No. 1 creeps up: Intermission! What?
You had the audience in the palm of your hand and you let them go? The dramatic tension and flow are disrupted.
There are so many philosophical and humorous lines throughout the play, but none so delicious as the comparison between theater critics and vampires: “a failed artist feeding off the works of others ... who hurts people at the pleasure of others.”
Ouch! I got it!
But the worst problem is the ending.
It’s rude and unsatisfactory. Despite a gorgeous, meaningful lighting effect, “Was it a dream or was it reality?” is a cop-out – a cheat. The critic’s proclamation, “I had a story,” can’t even save it.
As for the title of the play, it’s been suggested that it was McPherson’s having a go at some theater critic named Nicholas. (I wondered if it was producer Nicholas Allott of London’s West End). Whatever the source and despite the ending, I promise you, “St. Nicholas” is a witty, mesmerizing story told by a single voice that deserves to be heard.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a happily working actress and director. A retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 special educator and former Raue Center for the Arts board member, she currently serves on the boards of It’s Showtime Huntley and Right-Center-Left Production Co. She also was a 2018 Woman of Distinction.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “St. Nicholas”
WHEN: Through Sunday
WHERE: Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago
COST: $31 to $85
INFO: 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org