No one would accuse Conor McPherson of going soft. As Ireland's preeminent playwright, he is renowned for his bruising, binge-drinking, invective-spewing immorality tales.
His plays may be more humane than the sadistic farces of his Anglo-Irish contemporary Martin McDonagh, yet there has been no let up in malevolence. In "The Seafarer," produced at the Geffen Playhouse in 2009, the devil himself has a starring role as a poker-playing ensnarer of souls.
And in his latest work, "The Night Alive," which opens at the Geffen on Feb. 11, a hammer-wielding maniac has a scene that is one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had in a theater.
What is different about his most recent plays, however, is that amid the dilapidated settings, killer hangovers, corrosive humor and generalized brutality, McPherson draws our attention to moments of unexpected tenderness and camaraderie.
Indeed, the kind of companionship one finds in the plays of Samuel Beckett, exasperating yet indispensable, is increasingly evident in McPherson's work, which has evolved over time from the alienated voices of his early monologue plays to the ad hoc families of his more recent efforts. And counterbalancing the evil shenanigans are rare acts of uncalculated goodness.
Has anything changed in McPherson's life to have induced this subtle yet perceptible shift in his playwriting?
"Plays have to come very organically and from a place that is beyond rational decisions," he said while in town briefly to check in on rehearsals of "The Night Alive" at the Geffen, where Randall Arney is staging the West Coast premiere. "The plays I used to write were gloomier, so it probably has something to do with having a relatively more stable demeanor."
McPherson doesn't rush his answers. He pauses, considers, then pauses some more. Sitting in a plush meeting room at the Geffen, he seemed wary of glibness, of effacing messy truth with slick words.
He took another stab at answering the question. "It probably has as much to do with getting older, seeing that life is short, that time is racing and that warmth and goodness are so much easier to live with than darkness. But it's not as if I'm sucking on a pencil saying this is what I want to write."
With his trendy glasses and jeans, McPherson, 43, resembles a graduate student who has been stalling on his dissertation. Yet he has a fully grown-up life in Dublin with a wife and young child. Fatherhood along with a brush with mortality some years back have given him a mature appreciation of both the fragility and beauty of life.
"When I was 29, I basically had to stop drinking alcohol because I began to sink into overindulgence," he said. "It's not something that I focus on or obsess about. All I know is that I lived, that I got another chance. And I realized that this is all we have."
As with his plays, McPherson doesn't want the plot of his life to come off as pat or, heaven forbid, sanctimonious. "To be honest, I don't think any wisdom comes quick, and it's not one experience that will teach you anything," he said. "I regard myself as mystified and confused as I ever was."
A play for McPherson begins with an image. "I don't create it. I just kind of get it and allow it to stand on its own two feet." There's a stealthiness to his writing process — "I have to sneak up on a play" — reflecting his belief that the first draft needs to be inspired, the product of spontaneous energy, not a hard slog.
"If I do two, three pages, I probably won't do anything else for a week or two," he said. "I tell myself I'm just making notes. Gradually these messy notes start to resemble a draft of a play. Then after you have 30 or 40 pages, you're on the way. The fool who wrote them can step aside and, you, 'the playwriting expert,' have now arrived to save the day. At this point it's much more like working in your office."
"The Night Alive," which tracks what happens when a battered young woman is taken in by a makeshift family of quarrelsome older men, bears traces of the work of Harold Pinter. McPherson said "The Caretaker" served as "the template" for his drama.
He noted the obvious parallels — "the messy room, everyone's kind of vagrant" — without much anxiety of influence. That's probably because his style as a dramatist is unmistakably his own. There's a scene in "The Night Alive" in which Marvin Gaye's hit "What's Going On?" comes on the radio and three of the characters start grooving together in a manner that could be described as the opposite of "Pinteresque."
When asked about his early playwriting influences, McPherson cited three Americans "of incredible power, muscularity and flair": Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and David Mamet. He said that he has been returning to James Joyce's "Dubliners" for lessons in the art of compression. But surely Beckett is his patron saint?
"I'd say that would be insulting Beckett to say I'm influenced by him," McPherson said. "I can only stand in awe of his writing. But then he was a real writer. I mean playwrights are writers for sure. But plays, because they have to be performed live, need a three-dimensionality to them. I wouldn't feel that I have the facility for poetry that Samuel Beckett has."
In elucidating the differences in their art, McPherson touched on something fundamental to his work: "Language in my hands is not a great tool. I believe that audiences communicate with plays and performers on stage by telepathy. Really good actors don't have to say anything. We know what they are thinking. I want to trust the actors — just give them enough to be able to put something underneath, where the drama is really happening."
Beckett demanded that directors adhere closely to what he had written. McPherson said that his plays "need all the help they can get." Collaboration with actors completes them. This is why he prefers to direct their first productions. For him, writing and directing are complementary activities.
His production of "The Night Alive," which debuted at London's Donmar Warehouse and was later imported to New York by the Atlantic Theater Company, featured an extraordinary cast that included Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton, both of whom were in the Broadway production of "The Seafarer."
In Los Angeles for only a few days, McPherson said he was merely offering practical advice to Arney and the Geffen cast. "Since I've directed the play already, there's probably a few shortcuts I can show them."
Arney, who previously directed the Geffen production of "The Seafarer," said in a separate conversation how valuable it was to have the playwright on hand, both for insights into the play's Dublin setting and for reminders of how important it is, in McPherson's words, "to resist the condition of the characters," whose words often mislead.
There are two distinct phases of McPherson's playwriting: Those works written before "The Weir" (which had its world premiere at London's Royal Court in 1997) and those written after. The first of McPherson's plays to be produced on Broadway, "The Weir," a barroom drama made up of haunting anecdotes, marks the transition between the direct-address monologue plays ("Rum & Vodka," "St. Nicholas") and the subsequent dramas in which meaning lurks between the lines of dialogue.
McPherson said that his plays "may look like they're easy to do but are actually deceptively dangerous, because they need tremendous amount of care and detail to get right." Knowing how much success hinges on the acting, McPherson will "change the words to what fits best in the actors' mouths, because it's much more about their sense of truthfulness."
Raised Catholic, McPherson described "The Night Alive" "as a very religious play. It's almost a grown-up Nativity play," he said. "I see it in those very simple terms, with all the motifs about giving shelter to someone who needs shelter and featuring three wise men, none of them very wise here."
Is there a connection between McPherson's religious background and the supernatural element (ghosts, devils, all manner of spookiness) running through his plays? He took one of his longer pauses before answering: "Maybe Catholicism is a kind of rationalization, as all religion is, of a certain truth, which is that we live in a mystery. We know nothing really about where we come from or why there's a universe. I have always thought that the supernatural element of my plays was entirely realistic."
Stories, as much for McPherson's wounded character as for McPherson himself, seem to be a way of managing the existential quandary. They don't provide answers or happy endings but they bring people together to take in the pleasure and pain and passing wonder.
McPherson defended the shocking ending of "Shining City," his play (produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2009) in which a ghost makes a last-minute appearance. Rather than cheapening the drama, he contended that "it's the most important thing that happens in the whole play." He was presumably speaking in terms of metaphor, but the question of what he believes happens after death seemed strangely relevant.
"I'm not at all hopeful that we are going to remain as some version of ourselves," he replied — two lapsed Catholics taking up the subject as Protestants might banter about the weather. "Something very sad about that but also something beautiful, the way tragedy is beautiful. Death and decay are part of what makes our lives meaningful. Human beings will not exist forever. We're a little speck of dust in an inhospitable environment, with just a little thin atmosphere keeping us going, which we're destroying. But does that make it meaningless? I don't think it does."
Although he's made a few films, he hasn't had the success of McDonagh, whose Tarantino style translates more readily to the screen. "Martin has a wonderful sense of the macabre," McPherson said. "The horror and comedy in my work is a little more separate."
He described his plays as "emotional weather systems," an idea he picked up while writing songs for his band in his youth, and understands that they are made for the stage, which is where he's focusing his energy these days.
"Films for the audience are wonderfully immersive, passive experiences," he said. "All the work is done for you — you're sitting in first class, going on a ride into these emotions, without confusion. Plays demand a much harder level of concentration from the audience — together they help make the journey come alive every night."
What's it like for him to return to his plays as a spectator?
"I tend not to see my plays unless I'm somehow involved in the production," he said. "It's not any kind of snobbery. It's just that I've always had a reluctance to go back and look at them. I think I'm changing a little bit. I used to only ever see what was wrong with the plays. I think I'm getting a little more forgiving now."