Blood sucker or theater critic?

The Theater of the Expendable is staging Conor McPherson’s 1997 play St. Nicholas at The WorkShop Theater in Hell’s Kitchen. Darrell James plays McPherson’s narrator for ninety captivating minutes.

St. Nicolas is a play about power and parasitism. The narrator is a middle-aged, Dublin theater critic who hits rock bottom, and after a long decline, runs away to London to become the R. M. Renfield for a group of vampires. The set is a single chair, and the play an hour and thirty minute monologue. The nameless narrator tells us, the audience, a ghost story starring himself.

With this set up, you might worry that you’re in for ninety minutes of navel-gazing talk. After all, critics are notoriously opinionated and boring – when they are talking about something with substance. How much more boring must they be when they are talking about themselves? And even though vampires are all the rage these days, it is difficult (if not impossible) to stage the fashionable blood and sex that defines “It” vampires of the 21st century. But McPherson’s story successfully exploits this situation by relying on good, old-fashioned storytelling to draw the obvious analogy between a theater critic and an undead blood sucker.

Mr. James’s pitch perfect Irish brogue and barrel-chested, tweed clad presence captivate the audience as he weaves a hypnotic charm. He tells us with convincing detail how he lost his soul through the course of his professional career, until, like Herod, he relinquishes the last shreds of it for a young Irish actress playing Salome.

When the actress and her play go to London, our protagonist, wrapped in an alcoholic cloud, leaves his wife, children, and job to stalk the young provocateuse. After nearly drinking himself to death and shaming himself in front of the object of his affection, he wakes at dusk in a public park to a strange sight: a crouching shadow figure that extends itself supernaturally into a dark, handsome man named William. An uncanny calm comes over our Renfield, and William, the leader (and only male member) of a coven living in a dilapidated, abandoned suburb of London, tells Renfield he is to be their procurer – their pimp – scouring hip clubs for young, beautiful people to feed the house of vampires.

Not to worry. These are nice vampires. They suck the life energy out of the young, but they don’t kill them, and the final effect is something like a nasty hangover that makes you feel depressed and angsty. So much for blood and sex! These parasites don’t even have the common evil to leave you with an STD. But McPherson constructs the vampires this way in order to underline the real issue: critics also don’t literally kill you – they just suck out your soul. If you are young and strong enough (McPherson was 26 when he penned the play) the worst a bad review can do is give you a depressed angsty feeling that probably will dissipate by the time you are finished with your coffee.

You may ask yourself, if these vampires can’t do any harm, are they really vampires? McPherson uses this disconnect from the ancient superstitions about vampires to make a point about theater and its discontents. Narrative – storytelling – is a form of magic and mind control. Just like the vampires in movies and TV who can read your thoughts and turn you on subliminally, Renfield’s narrative is the seductive song of the vampire. Somewhere in the middle of the play Renfield tells us, just because you don’t believe in magic doesn’t mean its not there. Like everything real, magic is actually quite banal. That’s the source of its power: it works on you all the time, without you ever knowing it exists. The critic is a vampiric parasite because his narrative magic merely piggybacks on the real creative power of the playwright. (For example, reread paragraphs four through six of this review.) For McPherson, Renfield becomes the hero of the story when he realizes that he, as a human, has the power to feel for himself, to create his own story and tell it — a power the vampires lack. He has agency (like the playwright), and he uses it to escape the vampires’ clutches.

And so Renfield’s mortal soul is saved by the stage. If you’re lucky, seeing this production might do the same for you!

St. Nicholas

The WorkShop Theater

312 West 36th Street

Through July 3rd