REVIEW: Ensemble Theatre's 'St. Nicholas' is Ghostly, Obsessive

ETC’s limited-engagement run of Conor McPherson’s 'St. Nicholas' is an aesthetically pleasing take on a tired story.

Oct 15, 2018 at 4:29 pm
click to enlarge Bruce Cromer is one-man show 'St. Nicholas.' - Ryan Kurtz
Ryan Kurtz
Bruce Cromer is one-man show 'St. Nicholas.'

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s limited-engagement production of Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas may invoke nostalgia for the one-man-show’s star, Bruce Cromer, who has had a longstanding role as Scrooge in Playhouse in the Park’s A Christmas Carol

Much more of a spooky modern gothic tale than a Victorian Christmas story, St. Nicholas follows a jaded Dublin theater critic as he recounts his mundane-turned-paranormal midlife crisis—a tale well-suited for Halloween season. 

After a banal and hackneyed career as a syndicated journalist, the critic’s crisis unfolds after seeing the latest local mediocre production. At the after-party, he meets a young actress who quickly becomes an object onto which he projects obsessive lust. The critic quits his job, leaves his family and follows her theater company to London. All of these choices — his fantasies assure him — will certainly end in their passionate, lifelong affair. 

However, his predictable journey takes a dark turn into the paranormal world of vampires, whose immortal, irresistible existence gives him newfound confidence. Despite this mystical twist, the show becomes trope-heavy and lands on every cliché that might exist in a perfect parody of a one-man show, particularly one that is centered on a writer of any kind. 

The critic, though played emotionally and vulnerably well by Cromer, is the perfect stereotype of the tortured creative soul: a washed-up, self-loathing writer who self-medicates with excessive amounts of alcohol and fuels himself on emotional unavailability.

There is ample room in the play to take these tropes and flip them into something radical and enlightening. However, McPherson’s work doesn’t provide enough nuance in the few reflective moments for any of the observations to be revelatory.

Though the critic’s one and only reflection seems to be half-hearted disdain for his actions, the entire production seems to be one long half-apology, where he seeks redemption after having learned no real life lessons. At the end of the production, the only person who could quite possibly carry a greater amount of disdain for the theater critic (other than himself, of course) might be the average audience member who watches one man’s monologue as he navigates an uninspired midlife crisis. 

St. Nicholas offers an abundance of the same content that the one-man genre is known for: the same self-loathing, lecherous old man lusting after an inappropriately young woman whom he transforms into nothing more than a sex object with a startling rapidity. In an impressively swift decline, he manages to do this all within the first 20 minutes of the show. 

The brightest part of the production was the scenic design, headed by Brian C. Mehring. The set was bare and lovely, with glossy stone floors that covered most of the stage and lent an eerie air to the ghostly story. The lighting, which Mehring also designed, was simple. The use of fog produced sharp isolation within the follow spot, which created an ethereal backdrop for the narrator as he recounted his supernatural encounters.

Though the set was sleek and gothic, the movement choices were oft confused, as if there was lingering uncertainty as to where exactly each element of the different settings existed in the space. Despite this staging flaw, Cromer used the space effectively. Park benches became steps, chairs became beds, and no part of the stage was left untouched, either physically or by Cromer’s abounding stage presence.

The sound, designed by Matt Callahan, was impressively subtle. Callahan masterfully incorporated background ambiance and ghostly remnants of parties, street noise and laughter to accompany the critic’s recollections. The effect of the low, faraway sound design added an excellent layer of dreaminess to the atmosphere.  

Fans of gothic literature and of Cromer’s booming charisma will undoubtedly find moments of charm and curiosity within St. Nicholas. Despite the superb set design and Cromer’s consistent, stage-filling performance, the production still falls short of what it could be—these elements aren’t enough to break through the tired material that makes up the production’s base.

Ensemble Theatre’s production of St. Nicholas plays through Oct. 27. More info/tickets: