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'The Night Alive' shines with a dark humor and vivid power

Laughter. Loneliness. Violence. Death.

There is a lot to like about Irish Classical Theatre's production of  "The Night Alive," Conor McPherson's dark comedy about a clutch of life's losers trying to make a go of it in modern-day Dublin. McPherson has a sure hand with dialogue and gift for knowing just how much fear and despair he can pile an audience before giving them a much-needed laugh-out-loud release.

And the actors who are bringing McPherson's work to life make the most of it.

The story is centered on Tommy, a hapless sort of hero who is estranged from his children, chronically underemployed and still inexplicably optimistic and open to helping others. Brian Mysliwy plays him like he has known him all his life. He gives voice to Tommy's casual profanity like he learned it as his mother's knee, deftly applying it as punctuation for every moment, as he pushes along just doing the best he can.

All the action takes place in Tommy's shabby bedsit, designed by Paul Bostaph as a spartan and cluttered haven for Tommy's even less fortunate friends Doc (Kevin Craig) and the cast-away Aimee, an occasional prostitute played with feckless resignation by Cassie Gorniewicz.

Doc is on the dimmer side of bright, full of ideas that have so little to do with his current situation he would be inspiring if he could do anything with them. Craig plays Doc with a hopeful enthusiasm, and finds an agreeable audience in Tommy as he posits on the concept of "times waves," which are like sound only, you know, with time.

For a good part of the play the only real threat to this drifting existence is Tommy's uncle and landlord, Maurice, an often drunken widower who interjects himself at inopportune times and knows more than he lets on. Vincent O'Neill plays the old-timer with gleeful relish, not quite hiding a rather decent heart under his gruff demeanor.

The arrival of Aimee disrupts the unsatisfying equilibrium of the three men's lives. Tommy takes her in after she takes a beating from her boyfriend, and projects upon her all his neediness and need to be of use. More experienced than she should be, Aimee is more cautious, answering Tommy's volubility with wariness and soft words of "t'anks."

McPherson lets everyone settle in just enough to feel comfortable before he brings in Aimee's bad-guy boyfriend Kenneth, played by Adam Yellen with a twitchy menace that is downright creepy.

Bad things happen and the pacing shifts dramatically, with Maurice speaking for everyone when he laments, "What happened to all the sweetness? That's what I want to know." Suddenly, the matter of how to get by shifts to the question of the universal "Why?," and the notion that people like Tommy, Maurice, Aimee and Doc have as much right to ask it as anyone.

In a time when splashy musicals are getting the lion's share of theatrical attention, McPherson, who is still in his 40s, is coming up with intense and satisfying drama. "The Night Alive" shines with excellent performances, challenging themes and a fair share of humor, including a particularly appreciated gag involving a bag of turnips.

It is what Irish Classical does best.

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Theater Review

"The Night Alive"

4 stars

Conor McPherson's dark comedy, or comic drama, about the intersection of the messy lives of five Dubliners who need one another more than they realize. Presented by Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main St., through March 25. For tickets, go to irishclassical.com or call 716-853-ICTC.

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