Acclaimed actor Brendan Coyle takes the Goodman stage in Conor McPherson’s thoroughly bizarre monologue play ST. NICHOLAS, which combines the innately unsettling and the supernatural. Coyle, known for his work as Mr. Bates in DOWNTON ABBEY (which this critic has admittedly never seen) proves a master at his craft in this production transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse.
The actor’s ability to command the stage, however, does not entirely compensate for the oddities in McPherson’s script. Coyle’s unnamed character in ST. NICHOLAS is a self-deprecating theater critic with a drinking problem and who clearly suffers from a midlife crisis. After taking in a production of SALOME in his native Ireland, the critic becomes enthralled by the beautiful lead actor, Helen, and he decides to follow her to London when the show transfers there. In his pursuit of Helen, Coyle manages to become caught up in a ring of vampires. Thus, ST. NICHOLAS becomes a strange intertwining of what appears real and what may not be; it never becomes totally clear to the audience.
The play is more than 20 years old and shows its age. I would be remiss not to mention that the way the main character occasionally talks about Helen is enough to make the skin crawl. Though this is my first time viewing one of McPherson’s plays, I know that he likes to be intentionally provocative. In the case of certain moments in ST. NICHOLAS, however, this provocation feels unnecessarily discomfiting.
The play intrigues, though, because Coyle’s character overtly recognizes how reprehensible he is. This wry self-awareness adds an interesting dimension to the character, and the play’s second act in some ways becomes redeeming of the first in which this self-awareness only deepens. Coyle’s masterful performance also compensates for some of the play’s shortcomings. Under the direction of Simon Evans, Coyle is mesmerizing. The direction makes ample use of the Goodman’s intimate Owen stage, with ominous set and lighting design by Peter McKintosh and Matt Daw, respectively. Christopher Shutt’s sound design punctuates the more unsettling moments in the script and sets the tone for ST. NICHOLAS’s chilling tale. As the show opens, we see a bucket to Coyle’s left onstage; the sound design reveals a “drip-drip-drip” sound conveying a leak in the ceiling. This kind of detail elevates the supernatural elements in the play.
The ultimate result of ST. NICHOLAS is unnerving in every sense of the word. And while Coyle is an expert and charismatic performer, the play still drags in moments and just feels too deeply unsettling in others. Still DOWNTON ABBEY fans will delight in the chance to see Coyle in this role, and the acting choices he makes are quite brilliant. Coyle’s command of his voice is remarkable; he delivers many of his lines with an intriguing sing-song cadence that underscores the play’s dry humor in some beats and its mysteriousness in others. Coyle’s voice and body language are his most powerful acting tools, and his formidable skill is what makes him the right choice for this solo show.
St. NICHOLAS plays a limited run through January 27 in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $31-$85. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/StNicholas or call 312.443.3800.
Photo by Helen Maybanks
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com