A mostly good-hearted mix of lonely-hearts romance and Graham Greene-style soul-searching, Irish playwright John Lynch’s “Night Train” eventually jumps the tracks, derailed by jarring tone shifts and homestretch absurdities. Welcome pairing of John Hurt and Brenda Blethyn as a model-train-obsessed ex-con and his landlady will mean some specialty-circuit curiosity, but speedy cable and video sales are a more practical fit.
A wobbly Poole (Hurt) is released from a jail stint for cooking the wrong books. Time served, however, hasn’t placated a gangster named Billy (Lorcan Cranitch), who, it’s revealed via repeated flashbacks, is out quite a sum of money. Poole hides out in a Dublin rooming house run by Mrs. Mooney (Pauline Flanagan) and her timid daughter, Alice (Blethyn). Starved for affection, Alice takes an instant shine to the new lodger; her mum complains bitterly about all the racket upstairs.
Poole, it turns out, has cleared a space for his childhood obsession: a huge model-train layout, complete with towns and drawbridges. It’s over this world in miniature that the shut-ins bond and fantasize about riding the Orient Express to exotic locales. As the toy engines go round and round, Alice recites W.H. Auden’s “Night Mail” and recommends Greene’s “Brighton Rock,” an obvious influence on the yarn.
Of course, there is more standing between the couple and their daydreams than HO-scale mountains. Lynch (not to be confused with the “Cal” star of the same name) and writer Aodhan Madden pile on the complications, which, besides Billy and his thugs, include Poole’s reluctance to elaborate on the past, Alice’s increasingly hostile mother and drag-queen brother-in-law, who raids the neighborhood wash for feminine undergarments.
None of these subplots adds to — or helps explore — the central premise of “trapped” soulmates finding mutual joy in a toy landscape. The side trips to Poole’s new place of employment, a blood-splattered abattoir, and the flashbacks to Billy’s torture chamber are so grisly they feel like they belong in another picture.
But “Night Train” really comes apart in the third act. Here, Poole and Alice live out their travel-brochure fantasies aboard a luxury train speeding through the Alps. Suddenly, instead of a dingy little working-class melodrama, we’re in Ian Fleming territory, complete with first-class-compartment assassin and climactic faceoff in Venice between the hero and his nemesis.
Hurt has never looked more haggard, and, unfortunately, he can do little with a character who’s so saintly and soft-spoken he comes off as infuriatingly bland. For her part, Blethyn coos lovingly from the sidelines as a stereotypical spinster. Stage great Flanagan is, once again, a harridan to be reckoned with. Still, her comeuppance at the hands of Billy’s enforcer seems cruel and unusual.
Tech credits, including a clickety-clack score and theme song by helmer’s son, Adam Lynch, are generally polished, though not enough to smooth over plot’s many absurdities.