By Joseph Hurley
A NIGHT IN NOVEMBER, by Marie Jones. Directed by Pam Brighton. Starring Dan Gordon. At Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, 432 West 42nd St., NYC. Opened Oct. 7 for a 12-week run.
Kenneth Norman McCallister isn’t a saint. In his dead-end job as a welfare clerk in Belfast, the Protestant civil servant dreamed up by playwright Marie Jones and played so compellingly by Dan Gordon in the one-actor play, "A Night in November," isn’t above humiliating Catholics on the dole, hard-pressed men, husbands and fathers who stand before him seeking interviews intended to provide their families with food money in the rough times, which were all most of them had ever known.
"A Night in November" is no stranger to New York, having played a brief engagement at the Irish Arts Center last season. Now it’s back for what’s described as a "limited" 12-week run at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on West 42nd Street, a venue that suits both the play and the performer almost perfectly.
McCallister, who undergoes an enormous personal change during a relatively few days during the course of Jones’s revelatory two-act work, is at all times a fully dimensioned and totally credible human being, due to the subtlety of Jones’s writing, and to the passion and commitment the seemingly tireless Gordon invests in his remarkable performance of the part, a role that, according to the program notes, he has played "over 350 times," mainly in Ireland, Scotland and England.
Gordon’s character tells his story directly to his audience, acting out the roles of the people in his life, from his detested, chain-smoking father-in-law and the pretentious, convention-bound wife he dislikes nearly as intensely as he hates her father.
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Jones’s story is, in outline, simplicity itself. McCallister, a self-loathing wage slave trapped in a loveless, exhausted marriage, takes his prejudiced, cough-racked father-in-law to a soccer match between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an encounter that actually took place in Belfast’s Windsor Park Stadium in November 1993, a World Cup qualifying match that could send the team from the Republic to the finals, which were scheduled to be held in the U.S. in 1994.
The Belfast team couldn’t have qualified under any circumstances, but either a win or a tie could send the Dublin team to the finals, and, in the end, the players from the Republic did make the trip.
"A Night in November" works on at least a couple of valid levels. On one, McCallister, a basically decent, if thoroughly unspectacular man, has his eyes forcibly opened to the inherent evils and dangers of racial and religious hatred. On another, more intimate and perhaps more interesting level, Jones’s play is a clever variant of the "worm turns" genre, always a favorite theatrical sub-category, with, in this case, an unhappy, dominated husband escaping, even temporarily, from the wire mesh cage of a marriage woven by his wife.
Despite the fact that actor Gordon seems, both physically and emotionally, much too strong to pass easily for a completely cowed husband, he makes the play work by sheer dint of will.
The first half of Jones’s "A Night in November" is subtler and more interesting than the act that ends the play. In the initial segment, the author and her star, well-guided by their director, Pam Brighton, construct an impressively complex life for McCallister. Actor Gordon is asked to portray, in addition to the members of his immediate family, an impressive number of neighbors, friends, and co-workers.
Through a casual encounter with a colleague, specifically Gerry, his Catholic superior in the dole office, the passively prejudiced McCallister comes to learn that humanity resides as comfortably on the Roman side of the religious barricade as it does on the Protestant one with which he is familiar, and which, in fact, he has allowed himself to become entombed.
It is, perhaps, just a little bit facile on the part of playwright Jones to have her protagonist’s life changed quite so completely as it is by a chance visit to a Catholic home, where he sees books that look as though they might actually have been read, as opposed to the untouchably buckram-bound sets favored by his wife, ordered to match the tones of the living room carpeting.
An hour in an "enemy" home, the first McCallister has ever spent in such a place, opens the door through which the dole clerk will make his flight to freedom, quite literally a flight, since he uses household money, plus the sum he’d set aside to pay the first installment of the dues demanded by the snobby golf club to which he’s just gained membership, for a trip to New York in the hopes of watching the Irish team play in the World Cup matches.
The second half of "A Night in November" finds McCallister en route to New York, struggling to find a way to see the match in New Jersey, and, eventually, settling for watching it in a Second Avenue bar. The skill actor Dan Gordon has displayed earlier on had everything to do with his lightning-fast transitions, moving from character to character without, or so it seemed, taking a breath.
Gordon, an actor with a certain inherent bluntness, loses a measure of subtlety as the show progresses, while the text indulges in an overdose of raucous team spirit and outright boosterism. It is, after all, about a soccer match, so a certain amount of "Ole’! Ole’! Ole’! enthusiasm is suitable and unavoidable, even if it is achieved at the cost of what was inherently best in Marie Jones’s script.
For all its affectionate, and sometimes annoying, bluster,
"A Night in November" has a lot to say about freedom and tolerance. In a sense, it functions as a casual tour through certain aspects of human potential, with Dan Gordon serving as an ideal guide along the way.