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St. Nicholas spooks 

Not your usual theater critic: Jerome Davis in "St. Nicholas"

Photo by Right Image Photography Inc.

Not your usual theater critic: Jerome Davis in "St. Nicholas"

At first glance, Marc Bovino's tastefully understated set seems ready for the arrival of Spalding Gray—provided, that is, that Gray ever performed one of his epic monologues behind a desk whose surface seemed a wooden slab burned down to charcoal.

It's a smoothly polished, IKEA-worthy desk, but one whose color and texture evokes ashes. It's unsettling in its cleanliness, the utter absence of coffee rings, stickies, notes or manuscripts. If it's a writer's desk, why is it so empty?

It's this visual riddle that first confronts the viewers of St. Nicholas, whose restaging one full decade after Burning Coal's first attempt at it reunites director Randolph Curtis Rand with Jerome Davis, the company's artistic director taking a rare turn on the stage.

Having seen their original take on Irish playwright Conor McPherson's unsettling script, I'm gratified to note these artists haven't rested on the achievements of that initial staging. By the evidence, both have grown substantially into their roles and made this iteration of a tale for the darkest of nights a markedly different and stronger creature. It gives nothing of the game away to note that the chills this version gives audiences, in a number of places, go deeper than those of the Halloween variety.

Davis' unnamed character tells us how he was a Dublin theater critic and a self-acknowledged hack, one relatively unburdened by such appurtenances as journalistic ethics. His power in the theater world grew at about the same pace as his self-loathing, until the disastrous, booze-fueled pursuit of a young actress brought him face-to-face with a group of actual vampires.

I've never seen Davis more spellbinding as a storyteller than in this production. Starting with a quiet confession in a pitch black room, his character revisits old discontents and familiar wounds before being forced to confront something very different.

In St. Nicholas our speaker ultimately acknowledges just how ethically, spiritually and emotionally dead he once was—before encountering something similar in another form. But viewers convinced that this tale resolves as one of redemption and resurrection should carefully consider the vampiric facade of each. Do the last half-dozen or so lines of McPherson's script have an unexpected twist? Who exactly are we in the presence of?

Even now, I'm not sure I know; the show leaves a question mark hanging over all our relationships—one, naturally, tinged in red. Strongly recommended.

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