The word “promising,” in fact, took on some of the negative coloration of an outright insult when McPherson’s rich and witty five-actor play, “The Weir” was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre on July 4, 1997.
The Dublin-born writer, just 26 years old when “The Weir” was produced, was no longer “promising.” He had arrived, and with a vengeance.
McPherson’s “promise” had been indicated by a series of four plays, three of them monologues, and the fourth a three-hander, “This Lime Tree Bower,” which has appeared between late 1992 and early 1997.
The monologues, first “Rum and Vodka,” then “The Good Thief,” and, finally, “St. Nicholas,” which came along a few months before “The Weir,” motivated some critics, particularly in London, to condescend to McPherson, dismissing him as a writer who could create trenchant monologues and not much beyond that.
“Rum and Vodka,” the first flowering of McPherson’s impressive talent, first appeared at University College Dublin on Nov. 27, 1992, when the author was 21 and in the process of completing work on an MA in philosophy.
McPherson had, in fact, written “Rum and Vodka” when he was just 20. It would be easy to assume that the writer’s fondness for monologues masked an inability or unwillingness to tackle more complex forms of theatrical writing.
Reasonable as the conclusion may seem, it turns out not to be accurate. In a note he wrote for the published collection of five of his plays, McPherson commented of “Rum and Vodka” that “it was the first monologue I wrote. Up until then I had been doing normal ensemble plays with lots of characters talking to each other endlessly.”
Of “Rum and Vodka,” the writer adds that “it is the play with which I think I found my voice.”
That play, done off-off-Broadway a few seasons ago with the Dublin-born, Canadian-based John O’Callaghan as the nameless speaker, is now back in town in a powerful production with a little-known American actor named Mark Alhadeff, running at the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street through Nov. 3.
The fact that Alhadeff is not a Dubliner makes his achievement all the more remarkable, since his mastery of the Dublin argot, which is the coinage of McPherson’s 70-minute play, is virtually flawless.
Modest of stature but handsome in a battered sort of way, the graceful Alhadeff appears in the farthest reaches of the Ohio Theatre’s vast open space, makes his way toward the audience, and tells his story.
As directed by Samuel Buggein, Alhadeff’s approach is simplicity itself, adding immeasurably to the overall effect of McPherson’s sly, disarming play, a tale that begins with a disarming casualness and then moves on until it becomes a shattering account of an ordinary man’s spiraling descent into self-destruction and something resembling outright madness.
What McPherson does in his monologues could be said to be a kind of riff on the “unreliable narrator” technique of which certain American writers, Ring Lardner and others, made something of a specialty. Their heroes tell you what the world is like from their own point of view, relating their own personal histories with a monumental cluelessness.
In McPherson’s collected plays, the monologues are laid out, seemingly at the author’s behest, almost like verse. Each sentence and most of them are simple, declarative utterances, uncluttered by dependant clauses, is laid out with utmost straightforwardness.
Each one is separated from the one that went before, and the one that is to follow by a bit of white space, which makes every thought stand alone in a manner that makes it seem imbued by a sort of unique personality.
Actor Alhadeff seems to be playing “Rum and Vodka” in much the same way, in a manner in which the sad, harsh story moves in a fluid and spellbinding way, yet at the same time presenting the material in a such a way that each line appears to find its own mark, to strike its preordained target with amazing precision.
The actor, most of whose work appears to have been done in regional venues such as Princeton’s McCarter Theatre and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is apparently making his New York debut with “Rum and Vodka,” and an auspicious one it is too.
Credit, to be sure, should go to Ann Klautsch, who is listed as “Vocal/Dialect Coach,” a slightly odd appellation seemingly suggesting that she is responsible for Alhadeff’s excellence in reproducing the sound of McPherson’s doomed central figure.
Important as it is, the sound alone isn’t everything, and actor Alhadeff, in a suitably shabby suit provided by Mattie Ulrich, gets absolutely everything right. It’s a remarkable performance.