BWW Interview: Michael McElhatton in a Searing NIGHT ALIVE
Michael McElhatton is bringing his "A" game to the role of Doc in THE NIGHT ALIVE, a searing (and frequently funny) drama by Conor McPherson in a Donmar Warehouse production by the Atlantic Theater Company, by way of London.
The play, extended through Feb. 2, is the story of five interwoven characters, most of whom are flawed but harmless. Doc, an innocent, slightly bewildered best friend of Tommy (Ciarán Hinds), is as imperfect as everyone else, McElhatton said over a steamy soy cappuccino.
"All the characters are flawed people trying to do right," he said intensely. "This character is damaged, a little slow. Doc is like an innocent child in the world, who couldn't function without his good friend Tommy. He simply doesn't have the wherewithal to be on his own in the world.
"Yet whatever you make of his speech at the end, he seems wiser than we all made him out to be," he said. "Tommy and Doc, who often stays at Tommy's, are best friends. They probably have been good friends for a long time, even though Tommy sometimes treats Doc badly, like paying him a mere 15 euros a day for doing odd jobs.
"He's tight," he said of Tommy's miserliness. "But Doc doesn't mind-he's slow-witted but also kind-hearted."
The play turns disturbing when other characters enter Tommy and Doc's world. "There's a threat when Aimee [Caoilfhionn Dunne] comes in. Doc's jealous, as a brother would feel when a new little girl comes onto the scene," McElhatton said. "Doc gets jealous and threatened. But he's also a pain in the ass and treats Tommy's home like a hotel,"
McElhatton, who also portrays Roose Bolton ("a cold, calculating, manipulative sadist") in the HBO series GAME OF THRONES, has now been in three Conor McPherson productions. "His plays are very similar in the way they portray loss and wonderfully flawed, eloquent characters," McElhatton continued.
"They're also repressed in the ability to express emotion. Probably the female character in this play is the most repressed," he said. "And when the play turns violent" -guided by Violence Consultant J. David Brimmer-"I've heard audiences draw their breath in.
"The violence shows how shocking, brutal violence can change lives in an instant. It's one of the play's elements that I really like," he said. "It genuinely shocks audiences."
McElhatton is philosophical about the actors' role. "Our job is to lead the audience along so they could see why they act the way they do," he explained. Despite the play's searing, bleak scenes, humor threads its way through the play. "There's a huge amount of humor in this play, especially in the beginning," he said of the intermissionless production.
"Conor loves a cheap gag," he said with a laugh. "And this company is one of the most fun and nicest I've ever worked with. Everyone gets on so well. It's a tight company." Unfortunately, not every humorous bit gets a positive audience reaction, he added. "Poor Jim"-Jim Norton, who plays Maurice -"said his line, which is really funny, and the audience just didn't laugh. Jim was just heart-broken and muttered 'Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ' under his breath and I lost it. I had to turn away because I was laughing so hard, I was falling apart," he recalled. You just never know how an audience is going to react," he said.
"Doc is a totally sympathetic character," he continued. He's an optimist who just lives in the moment with no planning. He doesn't have any ambition other than to work doing odd jobs with Tommy, have a few drinks at the pub and not worry about anything."
One touching and humorous moment has Doc, Tommy and Aimee dancing and singing along to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" "It's all very embarrassing and I didn't want to do it but it just makes sense," he said. The bit evolved by itself he added, a seemingly impromptu moment that is both charming and disarming. What, indeed, is going on with these characters?
"I think Conor chose that song because everyone connects with Marvin. And the violence works because Doc is like a child and trusting.
"I think what I like most about this play is that audiences connect to it and are very touched by it. We want to make them laugh and cry. It's a delicate production that truly affects people. One night at the end a woman in the front row was bawling her eyes out. I think people react to Doc's speech at the end because it's tied up in our humanity. There's hope that there might be something out there, or maybe not."
The Night Alive runs through February 2. It's playing at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St.
Photo Credit: Helen Warner