The Irish are full of plays. The trouble is, so many of them seem alike - grand Irish stews of overacting and underacting (with a salty accent on the former), unlikely tales that beg credence but hope to charm credibility.
The grand old tradition started by Synge and O'Casey is now in the hands of the likes of the Dublin-born Conor McPherson, whose own staging of his play "The Seafarer" sailed merrily into the Booth last night, in a production that started its voyage at Britain's National Theater.
It is a mystery play, of sorts. Perhaps the first mystery is why it's called "The Seafarer," for no one seems to fare any sea except for . . . well, perhaps this is part of the second mystery.
For, now that the play has shown its hand all over town, I'm giving little away to say that one of the characters is the devil. Not metaphorically, but really, the devil. Hell and all that bad stuff.
And it seems that hell is eternity spent "in a coffin . . . under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch-black sea." At least you won't get a sunburn.
If you believe in God, perhaps you have to give the devil his due, but after Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, playwrights have been rather chary about presenting him onstage.
But McPherson does a quite spiffy job of his presentation. Satan is a smooth gent called Mr. Lockhart (symbolic, perhaps?) who arrives one Christmas Eve at a house on the outskirts of Dublin to claim the soul of one James "Sharky" Harkin.
McPherson's Satan believes in a very personal service, collecting his own packages for their safe and special delivery. Presumably - given the quantity of souls to be collected over the years - there must be any number of Mr. Lockharts, probably unionized into a kind of UPS for hell.
The characters of "The Seafarer" - four Dublin eccentrics plus Old Nick himself - spend an unconscionable amount of time drinking.
They start drunk, and they end drunk. Even the poker game Mr. Lockhart is playing for Sharky's soul - Sharky having impulsively killed a man 25 years earlier only to be freed from prison by Lockhart, for this delayed chance at his immortal soul - seems to have more rounds of drinks than deals of cards.
The writing is standard issue Irish-playwright whiskey-sodden banter - very good of its quick interweaving, miasmic kind - and the characters are odd enough to be diverting company for a couple of hours.
But Synge, O'Casey and others had a kind of mad poetry in them, seemingly not yet touched by their present-day successors.
Even when McPherson describes hell itself - in a long soliloquy by Lockhart - there is more convention there than the Miltonic majesty of total, irredeemable darkness.
Although the very modest production looks as if it was meant to occupy a larger space, McPherson's staging goes at a nicely galloping pace, and the acting throughout is excellent.
In the showy role of a blind drunk, Jim Norton suggests he'd make a splendid Joxer in O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," while I loved the saturnine, steely menace, draped in affected bonhomie, that Ciaran Hinds brings to the sinister Mr. Lockhart. Of the others, the ever-amazing Conleth Hill (seen on Broadway previously in "Stones in His Pockets" and "Democracy") is as amazing as ever.
But the play never lives up to the expectation of its premise. It doesn't, in the end, even surprise.
Do you know how you behave when you’re drunk, I mean, really drunk? If the answer is yes, then you’ve never been that drunk, since the curse and kindness of vast quantities of alcohol is that they obliterate self-awareness.
This physiological fact of life makes the gorgeous, vitally intelligent performances in “The Seafarer,” the new play by Conor McPherson that opened last night at the Booth Theater, all the more remarkable. Everyone in this dark and enthralling Christmas fable of despair and redemption descends at some point to oceanic depths of drunkenness, including a sinister fellow who is, shall we say, not of this world.
Yet as written and directed, the five carefully shaped characters of “The Seafarer” are blessedly free of the blurry, slurry clichés of acting intoxicated that can drive a sensitive theatergoer to, well, drink. Directed by Mr. McPherson, one of the finest ensembles to grace a Broadway stage in years uncovers the soul-defining clarity within the drunkard’s haze. Alcohol may be a great leveler, but as these men confirm with spectacular style, it is also a great individualizer.
Five poker-playing Irish drunks, bumping into the furniture of an ill-kept house in Dublin on Christmas Eve, may not sound like your ideal people to spend the holidays with. But as unlikely as it sounds, “The Seafarer” may just be the pick-me-up play of the season.
Structured as a long night’s journey into day, with truly frightening glimpses of a darkness that stretches into eternity, “The Seafarer” turns out to be a thinking-person’s alternative to “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a flagon of Christmas cheer. It’s heavier on the stinging sauce than that film, Frank Capra’s best loved, and lighter on the syrup. And it tingles with its author’s acute and authentic sense of what is knowable and unknowable in life. Of course it could be argued that it’s hard to know anything if you’re looking at the world through a glass of whiskey. But don’t think for a second that the prodigiously gifted Mr. McPherson, who has spoken publicly of his own battles with alcohol, has written a theatrical variation on “The Lost Weekend.”
In “The Seafarer” alcoholism isn’t primarily a medical condition but an existential one. As in earlier plays like “The Weir” and “Shining City,” Mr. McPherson is considering the impenetrable, scary mystery that is being alive and the blundering ways that poor humans deal with it. “The Seafarer” portrays the forms of amnesia and anesthesia that allow people to wake up with themselves.
Not that you think in such lofty terms while you’re listening to the liveliest, funniest dialogue yet written by Mr. McPherson, who usually specializes in reflective arias. Yet as soon as the ragtag clan of friends starts to assemble in the squalid home of the elderly Richard Harkin (the brilliant Jim Norton) and Sharky (David Morse), his woebegone younger brother, you’ll have at least an intuitive sense of repeated images that will build and echo.
That of sight, for instance. Richard is blind, the result of a recent accident on Halloween, when he fell into a Dumpster. Ivan Curry (Conleth Hill), a hapless fellow who has adopted the Harkins’ house as a holiday dormitory, has lost his glasses and spends the play, “feeling my way around.”
Then there’s blind drunkenness, a state achieved by all of the men, including the late arrivals Nicky Giblin (Sean Mahon), a good-looking but feckless lad now keeping company with Sharky’s ex, and Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), an incongruously dapper stranger who initiates a poker game in which the stakes are damningly high.
Though Mr. Lockhart initially seems to blend right into the boozy camaraderie, it gradually emerges that he is a man apart, if man is the right word. When he speaks to Sharky, who is doing his best to have a booze-free Christmas, Mr. Lockhart describes himself in ways that bring to mind the main character of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Yes, he’s the very Devil, though his accounts of his unbearable loneliness suggest that hell is just a cosmically magnified version of daily existence.
Hard-core secularists, even some of those who accepted the ghosts and vampires of Mr. McPherson’s earlier work, may be unsettled by the deeply Christian mythology that infuses “The Seafarer,” which was inspired by an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem of the same title. But the play makes suspending skepticism easy.
Even when Satan announces his identity, you feel you’re in the midst of real, fully detailed life. Every aspect of this production glows with verisimilitude, starting with Rae Smith’s perfectly shabby costumes and set, which happily features one of the saddest Christmas trees ever seen.
More crucially, you believe unconditionally in every one of the characters (even Mr. Lockhart). While avoiding straightforward exposition, the hearty conversation creates complete and subtle portraits of self-sabotaging lives scarred by unconscious cruelty, willed forgetfulness, fractured relationships and, above all, a sense of loss. Everyone in “The Seafarer” is forever losing something, both as small as an unfinished drink and as big as a family.
Only Mr. Norton and Mr. Hill are from the original cast of the production that I saw at the National Theater in London a year ago, yet this ensemble feels even more of a piece. Mr. Norton’s peevish, self-delighted autocrat will generate the most talk (and surely all sorts of prizes to add to the Olivier Award he picked up in London).
But everyone wears his part as if it were a favorite pair of old work gloves. Mr. Hill’s faltering body language as the terminally nearsighted Ivan remains priceless. Mr. Mahon portrays a shallow man without merely coasting on the surface.
As the central adversaries, Mr. Morse (of “How I Learned to Drive”) and Mr. Hinds (of the Broadway production of “Closer”) give the show a diamond-hard dramatic center it lacked in London. Mr. Morse locates exactly the fear of going wrong in the hulking, taciturn Sharky’s careful movements and measured words. Mr. Hinds is uncanny in balancing the mortal failings of Mr. Lockhart’s borrowed body and the immortal rage and agony of the demon within.
Most McPherson plays leave you feeling shaken and somber. This one concludes on a chord of sentimental uplift that may cause some audience members to feel cheated; in classic dramatic terms it’s as unwarranted as the happy endings of Shakespeare’s lesser romances.
But playwrights are the gods of their own universes. And in a season when many of the best new movies, like “No Country for Old Men” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” are bare of any sense of salvation, Mr. McPherson’s allowance of a provisional, redeeming grace has its warming charm. You don’t have to believe in it to be moved by it. Besides, transporting acting like this has an amazing grace all its own.
Even if Conor McPherson weren't so forthcoming about his past in interviews, his plays would likely be identifiable as those of a lapsed Catholic and former alcoholic, wrestling with personal demons concerning addiction, solitude, self-doubt and the need for emotional and spiritual connections. Though he's never quite approached those themes in such a rollicking fashion, they nonetheless permeate the Irish playwright's drunken dance with the devil, "The Seafarer." Lighter in tone than "The Weir" or "Shining City," and somewhat less fully realized, this imperfect but beguiling new work is considerably enhanced by McPherson's expert direction and some uncommonly fine acting.
The beauty of McPherson's dialogue lies in its hypnotic marriage of melancholy poetry with salty, booze-fueled pub talk. One might anticipate that the strength as a director of anyone who can write like that would be his ability to conjure the right rhythms from his words, conducting his cast to speak his lines exactly as they were written. That certainly feels like the case in this National Theater import, which includes superlative work from two actors who originated their roles in London (Jim Norton and Conleth Hill).
What's perhaps less expected is the expertise McPherson shows in the physical production, smoothly negotiating Rae Smith's split-level set -- so grimy and dank with age and neglect, it's almost pungent -- to keep the single-setting play lively. He also choreographs seemingly endless variations on inebriation from the actors, whose agile work flirts frequently with slapstick while remaining rooted in realistic behavior.
Action takes place in a dilapidated house in coastal Baldoyle, north of Dublin, in which a Jesus icon with an erratically functioning electrical eternal flame watches over the Harkin brothers' cheerless living room. It's the morning of Christmas Eve, and Sharky (David Morse) has recently returned home to care for his crusty older brother, Richard (Norton), who needs only a glass of whisky to keep him happy, despite having been blinded after stumbling into a dumpster on Halloween. Also on hand is Richard's perpetually plastered drinking buddy, Ivan (Hill).
Despite brooding Sharky's objections, Richard has organized a night of booze and poker with Nicky (Sean Mahon), a swaggering Eurotrash dude in sunglasses and tasteless Versace jacket who thinks he's a lot slicker than he is. Nicky brings dapper stranger Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), whose quietly sinister manner clues us in to his true identity. Since it's revealed so swiftly, it's hardly a plot spoiler to disclose that Mr. L. is the devil, come to claim the soul Sharky bargained away in a card game 25 years earlier after accidentally killing a man.
McPherson somewhat too transparently vacates the stage at intervals, leaving Sharky and Lockhart to face off alone. The high stakes having been clearly established, it seems only a matter of time and another round or two of drinks before Sharky loses a hand at cards and the visitor escorts the Faustian condemned man through "the hole in the wall."
But the emotionally bankrupt Sharky's desire for a fresh start has been revealed in his struggle to stay on the wagon and care for his handful of a brother, and in his evident feelings for a woman he met on an out-of-town job -- so it's not entirely surprising when the play switches from a tale of retribution to one of redemption.
The ease with which that happens in the uneven second act is problematic. Despite Hinds' enigmatic performance -- his first solo confrontation with Sharky instantly darkens the tone several shades -- and some refreshingly human twists on the satanic persona, Mr. Lockhart remains more of a device than a satisfyingly integrated character.
However, he does add flavor to the comedy, particularly when a glass too many of some lethal homemade poteen robs him of his poise, or when wincing through a drunken chorus of "Ave Maria." And though this play has fewer than usual of McPherson's customary bewitching monologues, Mr. Lockhart gets to expound chillingly on hell, not as the standard fiery pit but as a cold and unrelenting place of shame, self-loathing, anger and panic.
It's a memorable speech, given an added sting in its tail when Lockhart continues by describing the joys of heaven, his words echoed in an expansive universe suddenly suggested by Neil Austin's entrancing lighting effects.
While McPherson has been down parallel roads before and has traced his characters' tentative emergence from painful isolation with more poignancy and lucidity, he remains a gifted spinner of yarns. And there's much to savor here in the vividly alive character details and fully inhabited performances.
Affecting in his sullen withdrawal and intimidatingly powerful when he flares up in a rage, Morse is a commanding presence, wearing Sharky's burdens like a heavy cloak. With his nerdy underbite, lolling tongue, greasy combover and head scrunched deep into his slouching shoulders, Hill is equal parts repulsive and endearing as a shameless moocher, content to be everyone's lackey so long as it keeps the alcohol flowing.
Best of all is Norton. Cantankerous, ever-alert, self-aggrandizing and self-pitying when it serves his needs, Richard is right up there with the great filthy, mischief-making drunks of all time. Watch Norton's hand as he slyly monitors how far his glass is filled. Those eyes may be blank and unseeing, but they never lose their twinkle.