(This review was first produced in 2007, when Pat Jameson served as our culture editor. She died in April 2012.)
Setting: A shabby two-story house, in a suburb north of Dublin, on Christmas Eve. We had originally thought that a play about five drunken Irishmen would be clichéd, but not in the hands of Dublin’s extremely talented Conor McPherson, who wrote and directs “The Seafarer,” now at New York's Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St. between Broadway and 8th Avenue, by way of the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Characters: James “Sharky” Harkin (David Morse), who is caring for his crotchety blind older brother Richard (Jim Norton). We learn he is divorced from his wife, Eileen, who left Sharky for Nicky Giblin (Sean Mahon); drinking buddy Ivan (Conleth Hill), who has been fighting with his wife (“banjaxed relationships,” he says of his own and Sharky’s).
The men are looking forward to card playing and more drinking with Nicky and the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Ciarán Hinds), who arrive to play poker.
The strong realism of the first act, with small details involving noisy winos, a shopping list, Ivan’s missing eyeglasses and Richard’s toilet habits, is offset by the demonic spirituality of Mr. Lockhart’s character.
Nicky, in his Versace jacket, and the very dapper Lockhart arrive, and the drinking gets serious. They raise a Christmas toast, and Lockhart suddenly tells them that the noisy winos in the front yard are now sitting on Ivan’s car, left parked outside. Ivan, Nicky and Richard scurry outside to deal with this artificial episode, setting up an intense scene between Sharky and Lockhart.
“I want your soul – you promised me the chance to play again,” says Lockhart to Sharky, and we are made aware of the Faustian bargain made 25 years ago. Suddenly, realism goes out the window, along with the votive light in front of the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Happy Christmas, indeed.
“The Seafarer” is based on "The Hellfire Club," an old County Wicklow myth concerning a poker game and the Devil. The motifs running through the play are excessive consumption of alcohol, excessive despair, the aforementioned “banjaxed relationships,” fear, the sea, love, and redemption.
Yet through the boozy, loony antics, the audience was laughing, and not just uncomfortably. The ensemble works so well together that it has the chemistry of poitín; the night we attended, the house was full and the actors got a standing ovation to two curtain calls. Hill and Norton are veterans of the original London cast; Norton won the Olivier Award last year for Best Supporting Actor, and it is difficult to imagine him not being nominated for a Tony. Morse and Hinds also turn in stellar performances, Hill is wonderfully funny, and Mahon debuts solidly on Broadway.
The set design is very accurate, and the lighting helps move the action. The kitchen is backlit, and the changes in the lighting make us aware of the movement of time.
This brings us to McPherson. He blends detailed realism with the metaphysical, with irony as the straw that stirs the drink. This is his third Broadway play; “Shining City” took the Tony for Best Play in 2006 and “The Weir” was up in 1999, also to critical acclaim – and he’s only 36 years old. He updates the Faust legend in a way that makes us shiver, even though we laughed. His direction of this ensemble shines. And that’s not too shabby.
Nollaig Shona Dhuit, indeed. You must see this play; it's a limited run.