Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Brendan Coyle in the Donmar Warehouse Production of “St. Nicholas.” Photo by Helen Maybanks
By Josh Flanders
“We compensate for our own opinions with a sense of humor.”
There is a great deal of humor in “St. Nicholas,” a wonderful one-man production starring Brendan Coyle as a self-loathing, alcoholic theater critic who waxes on angrily about his profession and his pursuit of acceptance from others, especially women. There are also a lot of vampires. The play touches on the fraught relationship between critics and artists, the latter often seeing the former as soulless creatures. This powerfully engaging show written by Conor McPherson, a sort of “Irish Vampire in London,” unfolds in two parts.
In the first, Coyle’s unnamed critic relates his opinions, all of them negative, about his colleagues and himself, with a jovial humor that compensates for his cruel and selfish actions. He pursues an actress, Helen, the focus of his unrequited love, like a stalker, yet rationalizes it as something innocent, like love, unable to see the line between reality and infatuation. His desire to be different, to wake up and be who he always wished to be, humanizes him a bit, eliciting some sympathy. But beware! Monsters lurk behind the shadows. At first he is the monster, yet when his actions border on criminal, he recoils and in his drunken stupor meets his match in a real monster. The vampires in this play exist either in reality or metaphor, and possibly both, cloaking everything in a wash of ambiguity and mystery.
The second half, the stage lit by candles, exists in a semi-dreamlike state. There are wonderful stories within stories, and misty trances, all of which add to the mood and leave the audience guessing at what really happened. The critic recalls how he succumbed to the power of the vampires, luring young people to their home. But not to worry, he claims they left unscathed (minus a little blood). But who makes that call? Those with power do not force others to do things against their will, he says, they “make you want what they want”. He describes it almost as a beautiful surrender when taken by a female vampire. All his explanations of monstrous acts are shrouded in beauty, masking the reality of violation from his self-conscious.
Coyle’s critic tries desperately to show that vampires lack empathy and conscience; they are unable to reflect (get it?!). Yet, throughout the play, little separates his character from the blood-sucking immortals that he (verbally) skewers. Perhaps humans know what they are doing is wrong, but if they still do it, what differentiates them from vampires? Can either reflect on their morality, especially when they blame their actions on others? In this day of #MeToo, it is especially timely to have a character who blames both alcohol and vampires for taking away his agency, conveniently removing any responsibility for his horrific actions. In the end, accusing vampires of the same lack of compassion that he has makes him the most tragic character of all. But audiences just love a deeply flawed protagonist that can offer a reflection of ourselves.
ST. NICHOLAS runs through January 27. For more information visit goodmantheatre.org.