Review: Hyde Park Theatre's St. Nicholas

Conor McPherson revival is a retelling of a tall tale worth repeating

Ken Webster in St. Nicholas (Photo by Katherine Catmull)

Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a master storyteller whose monologue-driven plays create an atmosphere so intimate that they are more confessional than theatrical. Such is the case with his fourth play, St. Nicholas.

The play made its off-Broadway debut in 1998, was staged in Austin by by Hyde Park Theatre in 2006, and is being staged there once again.

Like McPherson’s other works, this one-man play revolves around a highly implausible B-movie premise. It features a middle-aged, much-loathed theatre critic (no, that’s not the implausible part) at the apex of his alcoholism and disillusionment.

The first act is singularly devoted to relaying just how loathsome he is, punctuated by his abandonment of job and family to follow a woman to England. She is an ingénue named Helen, who recently played the title role in a Dublin production of Salome that the critic brutally panned. She and her company are in London to perform the show in a limited engagement made even more limited by his negative review. While stalking and stumbling, our drunk and self-hating protagonist befriends and becomes the good-will ambassador for a colony of vampires (yup, the implausible part).

Armed with an upgraded wardrobe and charmed with newfound social graces, his task throughout the second act is to lure young bar denizens to the vampires’ lair for an evening of living-dead seduction and oral blood-letting.

The victims remain unturned and, in the morning, are given euphoric amnesia and sent on their anemic way. As for the captive critic – a vampire-of-sorts himself, since he has made a long career out of preying off the artistry of others – it's rinse and repeat for eternity unless he manages to find some self-worth and somehow escape from this dreamlike, amorphous underworld he’s so readily embraced.

St. Nicholas overflows with powerful imagery and poetic passages, and is so well written that, if the good folks at HPT just kept the house lights on and handed out scripts, it would have been a good evening. But, wisely, artistic director/actor Ken Webster is once again put in charge of delivering the words in order to turn them into riveting theatre.

Regarding HPT’s earlier production of this play, Chronicle critic Hannah Kenah noted that “it is hard to make writing this good sound natural, but Webster manages it easily. [The] language is rich and Webster attacks it.” He still does, but the passage of nearly two decades has tempered Webster’s verbal assault so that it now consists of a more calculated, intellectual engagement with the words by a more vulnerable and world-weary protagonist.

In addition to his fine Irish accent, Webster has found a gentle rhythm in the delivery of McPherson’s words – a musicality of sorts – that Girl from the North Country, one of the playwright’s most recent works, required the infusion of Bob Dylan songs to achieve. This facilitates Webster’s miraculous creation of a fellow worthy of compassion from a compilation of despicable attributes, who bites at the heels of the play’s dramatic conceit by finding welcome moments of levity.

Webster’s performance as the play’s director is less laudable. His creative vision has once again resulted in bare-boned scenic design consisting of a non-descript armchair, which restricts his movements, and a small wooden side table supporting a cup of water in an otherwise empty performance space. No sense of place exists for this character to justify his telling of this tale, nor is there a hint as to why he is telling this tale directly to us. In line with the scenic design, neither Don Day’s sparse lighting design nor Robert S. Fisher’s limited sound design contributes much to the storytelling. And the only benefit of dressing Webster in a dark suit, accredited to costume designer Leroy Sakowitz, is that the actor wears it like a man not made for it, which actually suits his weathered character to a tee.

And yet, both this play and this performance manage to be memorable and sufficiently mesmerizing, leaving the audience engaged and pretty damn euphoric without discernible production bells and whistles. Or a bite on the neck.

St. Nicholas
Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512-479-7529
Through April 22
Running time: Approx. 1 hour, 40 mins.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Bob Abelman
Top 10 Memorable Moments in Austin Theatre
Top 10 Memorable Moments in Austin Theatre
Highs and lows from Austin’s stages in their first real post-pandemic year

Dec. 15, 2023

Review: Broadway in Austin's <i>Six</i>
Broadway in Austin's Six
Flash over formidability defines this pop historical fiction

Oct. 4, 2023


St. Nicholas, Hyde Park Theatre, Ken Webster

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle