Alley Theatre: Cashing In?

Categories: Stage

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Jann Whaley
James Black asserts that the Alley isn't trendspotting.
Critical response to the Alley Theatre's production of Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas has been less-than-ravenous. Everett Evans of the Houston Chronicle wrote, "Alas, despite the resourceful performance by James Black, the play remains as unappealing as ever," and he wrapped up his assessment with an insult for the ages, labeling the play "a case of the emperor's new clothes." Our own Lee Williams thought the play had its moments but ultimately concluded, "The material just loses steam."

Turns out St. Nicholas was given its Houston premiere by Theater LaB in 2001, and reception then was similarly tepid. The one-man play, about a jaded, alcoholic theater critic who finds himself working for a coven of vampires, was written in 1998, at a time when the idea of benevolent vampirism was relatively new--Anne Rice having been the only big writer to successfully crack the concept into the mainstream. Now, of course, it's a full-blown, pop-cultural phenomenon.

And there's been speculation that the Alley, which first announced the play in May, quickly trotted out the piece in an attempt to cash in on the current vampire feeding frenzy. But director and star James Black says the decision to produce the work wasn't strategized to take advantage of any pop trend.

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"The theater has had a lot of success over the last couple of years having an adult alternative to Christmas Carol with Santaland Diaries, so the idea was to try to do the same thing during the summer, see if there was an adult audience that wanted something more than your average "Summer Chills.'"

"Another reason we chose it was because it was contained; it's a monologue. Conor McPherson has been on the shortlist when we talk about plays each year; I love his work. It's all based in that Irish storyteller vernacular. It's a fascinating little puzzle of a play that I continue to figure out well into the third week of the run."

"In retrospect, I kind of wish we had scheduled it during the regular season, so it would've taken the weight off the vampire aspect of the story, because that's a secondary element to what the piece is saying, and people might be looking for a bit more of a classic vampire story than what they get. It would have been better if vampire stories weren't as popular, because this was written in 1998-99, and the whole concept of benevolent vampires was kind of new back then, and that was kind of [McPherson's] angle about vampirism in this story, but now, you know, with True Blood and Twilight and stuff like that, it's a bit overly familiar. But again, as I said, that's not the primary, so to speak, "blood" of the story. It's about a guy grappling with middle-age. And it's a young playwright's take on theatrical criticism."

The Alley's PR department doesn't see it that way. There's no mention of any boring old mid-life crisis in the press release. There is, however, a big fat New York Times quote calling the play a "shaggy vampire story." And the Alley's website contains an "essay" written by Lauren Halvorsen that namedrops every current vampire-genre film and television series and basically acknowledges the entertainment industry's bloodthirsty appetite for anything undead and sexy.

Classic arts-org miscommunication.

Anyway, we think Black is a fantastic actor, and we wanted to know how he was holding up in his first one-man show.

"There's no lonelier feeling. I mean, it's fucking terrifying. It's exhilarating when it's finished. I wasn't prepared for the challenge ... at all. I mean, I thought, OK, I'll tell a little story. No big deal. And it turned out to be quite daunting. You don't have another actor to play off, and to support you, and to feed from. The other participant is the audience. And if the audience isn't on their game on any given night, it can be really, really tough. If the audience is enjoying it and giving you a lot of energy, then it's terrific. When it's quiet, which they have been on several occasions, yeah, it's hairy."

On the lukewarm critical reaction:

"It's kind of what I was expecting, because the play doesn't have a lot of pleasant things to say about the art of theater criticism. [McPherson] was very young when he wrote this. Again, people who aren't familiar with it, coming in to see it, are expecting one thing and getting something different. What I am surprised about--I don't think people are looking at it hard enough, critically enough, not in depth enough."

"McPherson creates this really unattractive character, and somehow makes him rather appealing to listen to; he's a good storyteller. He's an alcoholic; he's a wannabe writer. He has issues about artists, and he has issues about his place in an artistic world. He has an artistic sensibility but no output."

I think the play is saying a lot more and wrestling with more issues than people give it credit. And it may be one of those things--that it reads better than it plays."

Currently in its last week of performances, St. Nicholas runs through Sunday, August 8, Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Reservations: 713-220-5700.

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Alley Theatre

615 Texas Ave., Houston, TX

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