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At the Goodman, ‘St. Nicholas’ is heavy on the dramatic, light on any real drama

Brendan Coyle stars in "St. Nicholas" at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo

Brendan Coyle stars in "St. Nicholas" at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo

What separates us from evil? Or, for that matter, separates most of us from sociopaths? Or, if you want to get metaphorical (maybe), from vampires? The answer — and it’s a good one — is embedded deep in Conor McPherson’s 1997 drama “St. Nicholas.”

When the unnamed theater critic (Brendan Coyle) in McPherson’s one-man show falls in with a household of vampires, their nightly butcherings lead him to question the depths of his own depravity. Unlike his charismatic undead friends, the booze-addled critic isn’t quite so corrupt that he’s unable to reflect on the nature of corruption.

Directed by Simon Evans, Coyle (best-known for his Job-like sufferings on “Downton Abbey” as the beleaguered and endearing valet Mr. Bates) is all-in as the dissolute critic. But despite his creepily compelling work, “St. Nicholas” is essentially the story of a self-indulgent mid-life crisis of a mediocre man. And that is just not terribly interesting, even with vampires.

‘St. Nicholas’
★★1⁄2
When: Through Jan. 27
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $31 – $85
Info: GoodmanTheatre.org

There’s no question as to the critic’s mediocrity. He’s a self-described “hack” who is rich, terrible at his job and at the top of his profession. He revels in petty cruelty and unearned power. He salivates over women young enough to be his daughters. And as it turns out, he has no problem administering the vampire-world equivalent of Rohypnol to unsuspecting twentysomethings.

When Coyle’s fiftysomething critic starts detailing his adventures stalking a nubile young actress (he becomes obsessed with her “Salome”),  you may well start hoping the vampires descend on him just so he’ll stop waxing icky about the bewitching shadows and sinews of Salome’s various appendages.

The problem here is tied to empathy. You don’t need to empathize with the leading man to have a great play. Richard III and Titus Andronicus and Hannibal prove that. But McPherson’s critic doesn’t have the intelligence or charm of a Richard or a Titus. His entitlement is common: It’s not kingdoms he feels entitled to; it’s the adoration of young actresses.

Still, there are many bewitching moments in “St. Nicholas.” There are passages about youth and power and the magic of nature that are profound, ideas that merge poetry with philosophy on a plane that seems to waver slightly above this earthly one.

“They have power,” the critic says of vampires. “Not the power to make you do what they want. But real power. To make you want what they want.”

That’s the kind of thought that sets your synapses sparking like an electric eel fending off a predator, in no small part because McPherson surely isn’t really talking about Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking fantasies.

Brendan Coyle stars in Conor McPherson’s 1997 drama “St. Nicholas" at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo

Brendan Coyle stars in Conor McPherson’s 1997 drama “St. Nicholas” at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo

You know the vampires are coming within the first minute of the play’s 90-minute monologue. Brooding on his drunken nights as a critic, Coyle provides a bit of a timeline: “This is back before I met the vampires.”

The road to vampires begins with the aforementioned production of “Salome.” As the critic explains, the actress in the title role sent him plummeting into existential crisis, dragged down by the memory of her lissome appendages. He abandons his family and his job, checking into a London hotel without telling them his whereabouts. Like Don Draper/Dick Whitman in the final season of “Mad Men” (which came decades after “St. Nicholas”), the critic is a man who can vanish without worrying about money, the fate of his children, or the loss of a prestigious, extremely well-paying job in a hyper-competitive field. It’s a Dick Whitman move that further nudges the audience toward team vampire.

There is still less empathy when the critic starts procuring young people for his vampire friends. We’re told nobody gets hurt or turned into a vampire – the victims just don’t remember anything about what happened to them. And that sometimes they wake up in the vampire house wearing only their underwear. And that they are always quite eager to leave when they do wake up.

As this goes on (for years), the critic gazes ever deeper into his own tortured psyche and “St. Nicholas” becomes all about his self-indulgence. Not even vampires can make that dramatically compelling.

As designed by Peter McKintosh, “St. Nicholas” transforms the Goodman’s Owen Theater into a space of eerie abandonment. The set evokes decayed splendor, sumptuous carpets rotting at the edges and elaborately paned windows papered over with newsprint. Matt Daw’s flickering lights and Christopher Shutt’s masterful sound design (are those far-off children screaming or laughing?) create a marvelous ambiance.

But “St. Nicholas” isn’t in the same room — or even the same building — with McPherson’s later, supernaturally-infused works, including 2006’s brilliant “The Seafarer” or 2004’s “Shining City.” The Donmar Warehouse “St. Nicholas” traveled a long way in the service of an uninspired story that, when you get down to it, lacks any real bite.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.