Brendan Coyle engrosses as self-hating critic in Goodman's 'St. Nicholas'

 
 
Updated 1/16/2019 11:34 AM
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  • Shadows loom large for the unnamed theater critic in the midst of a midlife crisis in Goodman Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas" starring Brendan Coyle.

    Shadows loom large for the unnamed theater critic in the midst of a midlife crisis in Goodman Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas" starring Brendan Coyle. Courtesy of Helen Maybanks

"St. Nicholas" -- ★ ★ ★

Those who can, do theater.

Those who can't do theater, critique it.

That's the impression conveyed by the middle-aged theater critic at the center of "St. Nicholas," Conor McPherson's beguiling 1997 one-hander about a hard-drinking, self-described "hack" contemplating life's second (or is it third?) act and finding it wanting.

The 2018 Donmar Warehouse revival starring Brendan Coyle ("Downton Abbey's" Mr. Bates) is being remounted at Goodman Theatre with Donmar's artistic team, including director Simon Evans and Christopher Shutt, whose subtle, sinister sound design includes vocalizations that fall somewhere between shrieks and laughter. Those and other chilling effects perfectly suit this dark and intimate tale.

As with many McPherson plays, "St. Nicholas" contains a supernatural element. Here it's modern-day vampires: creatures of the night who suck the lifeblood out of unsuspecting victims, much the same way a critic (also a creature of the night) might -- with a withering review -- suck the creative lifeblood out of theater artists.

Brendan Coyle, of "Downton Abbey" fame, plays a self-hating theater critic in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas," running through Jan. 27 at Goodman Theatre.
Brendan Coyle, of "Downton Abbey" fame, plays a self-hating theater critic in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas," running through Jan. 27 at Goodman Theatre. - Courtesy of Helen Maybanks

We meet the unnamed Dubliner in a dim, dusty, paper-strewn garret (a nicely gloomy set by Peter McKintosh), where the windows are covered in yellowing newsprint. A manual typewriter sits atop an old wooden desk in this long-abandoned space murkily lit by lighting designer Matt Daw, whose faint candlelight chillingly captures the critic's looming shadow.

His ability to string words together makes him famous, he says, a well-educated, well-paid arbiter of taste and a self-described "friend of the masses ... protecting them from these artistic charlatans who were trying to rob their money."

That's a lie, however. Any passion he had for the theater is long gone, replaced by arrogance and fame. Estranged from his wife and kids, contemptuous of his colleagues and competitors, he goes through the motions -- drunkenly -- of bullying artists, rehashing columns and scribbling reviews on the back of programs.

Filled with envy and self-loathing for his inability to create anything new, he is consigned to commenting on that which already exists.

"I had no real thoughts about things," he says. "I'd never taken the care to form an opinion. I just had them."

Exacerbated by a copious amount of alcohol, this midlife crisis (for that's what it is) comes to a head when he becomes infatuated with a young actress, abandons his job and family and follows her theater company to London. There, after making a fool of himself, he encounters the never-seen William, who enlists the critic's help procuring sustenance (in the form of attractive, young pub-crawlers) for him and his vampire coven.

Donmar Warehouse's 2018 London revival of Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas," starring "Downton Abbey" favorite Brendan Coyle, is at Goodman Theatre for a limited run.
Donmar Warehouse's 2018 London revival of Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas," starring "Downton Abbey" favorite Brendan Coyle, is at Goodman Theatre for a limited run. - Courtesy of Helen Maybanks

"They had power," observes the critic of his undead employers, who neither kill nor turn their victims. "Not the power to make you do what they want. But real power to make you want what they want."

Much like an actor, one might say. Or perhaps a critic.

Coyle ("Mary Queen of Scots," "Me Before You") isn't just an impeccable actor who seemingly connects with each audience member individually; he's a superior storyteller of McPherson's perceptive, highly descriptive and sinister (almost horror) tale. Coyle makes this detestable, desperate individual alluring. Something about this deeply flawed man must engage us, and Coyle finds it. There's a suggestion of neediness early on, but there's no self-pity in Coyle's expertly paced, unobtrusively self-aware performance, which he conveys matter-of-factly.

That's the ideal approach for this play, and its only flaw rests with an unearned coda, featuring a tacked-on message of hope that feels contrived. Better to have ended the play a few minutes earlier with a revelation -- smartly illuminated by designer Daw -- that explains why even a hack writer might sell his soul.

• • •

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 27

Tickets: $31-$85

Running time: About two hours, with intermission

Parking: $22 at the Government Self Park at Clark and Lake streets with Goodman validation

Rating: For adults; includes mature language and subject matter

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