"Whatever happened to all the sweetness?," asks Tommy, the big mess of a lug who lives in a filthy rented room in his uncle's Dublin house. Since the pretty prostitute Tommy tries to rescue has already entered with a battered nose and his loser of a friend has been bashed into the hospital with a hammer and a brutal stranger has been stabbed in the back, we may assume the question is asked as a joke.

For all the gore and the grime in Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive," however, Tommy really is a good guy whose yearning for lost kindness is the curveball in this marvelously performed but predictable and surprisingly obtuse comedy of lowlife ugliness.

You remember McPherson. He appeared gently on the radar screen from Ireland in the late '90s, not long after his flashier young compatriot, Martin McDonagh, bludgeoned his way to this same Atlantic Theater Company and then to Broadway with such bloody Gaelic-Gothic satires as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

McPherson has always been more of a storyteller -- often a rural ghost storyteller -- more haunting, to my mind, in monologues than in such Broadway full-lengths as "The Weir" and "The Seafarer." Even when his tales feel forced into tidy well-made dramas, however, his language spins with the deep intimacy of an irresistible campfire fantasy.

"The Night Alive," imported intact from his staging at London's Donmar Warehouse, feels like an effort to move into a more straightforward urban plot and to break from his humane subtlety into the grotesque comic violence of McDonagh territory.

Ciarán Hinds has a fine mixture of concern and menace as Tommy, who does odd jobs and eats dog biscuits out of the box. Caoilfhionn Dunne is aptly hard to read as the woman he brings home. Jim Norton, in a welcome break from recent roles, peels away wonders of erratic layers as the uncle. The mentally slow buddy (Michael McElhatton) seems far too bright and philosophical for his described disability. But his theory about "time waves" from the ancients folds beautifully into the tribal folk/rock music between scenes. At the risk of being presumptive, the echoes in this music and in Tommy's lament for sweetness amid mayhem could be the lasting message from this puzzling and raucous play.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

WHAT "The Night Alive"

WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.

INFO $65; 866-811-4111; atlantictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Humane McPherson in cruel McDonagh territory.