Midway through The Night Alive, after the main three characters' spontaneous sing-along to Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On” in a Dublin apartment, Tommy pauses to really consider the song's hook: “What is going on?” he says, softly. “What the fuck is going on?” It's a poignant moment that encapsulates a life that's gone wrong for so long but might, just might, finally be on the brink of redemption.
Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor) does odd jobs with his partner, Doc (Dan Donohue), and rents a room piled with clothes and trash bags, away from his wife. But one day he rescues a woman (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) from her abuser, and she gives him a hope of happiness.
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Irishman Conor McPherson, 43, one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his generation, is more earnest and naturalistic than his flashier compatriot Martin McDonagh, but he's a master at layering in the sinister, the supernatural and a sympathy for the downtrodden.
The Night Alive, making its L.A. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is a slow build, but as in the beginning of Space Mountain, there's pleasure in not knowing exactly when the ride's going to get scary. You nod along with Tommy, thinking, “Yeah, what the fuck is going on?” as you realize that at any moment the story will creep up on you and never let you go.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; through March 15. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.