The cast of ‘The Seafarer.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
A mix-up concerning my reservations for the Irish Repertory Theatre’s mostly sterling revival of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer was happily resolved when my plus-one and I were provided with first-row seats. If you know the Irish Rep, you’re aware that their small, narrow stage, with its permanent supporting pillar down right, can be a devil of a space for designers.
Yet, even at close proximity, where showers of thespian expectoration might easily be expected, it was difficult to discern a single false note in Charlie Corcoran’s solid-looking, photorealistic, two-level design of a shabby, junk-cluttered home in Baldoyle, Ireland, a northern coastal suburb of Dublin. Even before the play begins, you can practically smell the alcoholic reek. And, once it’s underway, the rattier of Martha Hally’s costumes seem soaked in sweat, spirits, and piss.
False notes, while not entirely absent, are rare in this exceptionally well-staged (by Ciarán O’Reilly) and acted production. McPherson’s black comedy, which premiered at England’s Royal Theatre in 2006, combines naturalism with magic realism, and poetic lyricism with gutter profanity. Its outstanding, Tony-nominated 2007 Broadway production starred David Morse as the down-and-out James “Sharky” Harkin, and Tony-winning Jim Norton as his aging, recently blind brother, Richard Harkin. Ciaran Hinds was memorable as the mysterious, threatening Mr. Lockhart, a role now covered, unmemorably, by stage and film star Matthew Broderick.
McPherson sets the action at Christmas, which offers a good excuse for the grubby Richard (Colin McPhillamy) and his myopic, equally sloppy friend, Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), to drown themselves in nonstop libations. The tightly coiled Sharky (Andy Murray) has lost his chauffeur job and is struggling to stay on the wagon. Needing a place to live, he’s been caring for (and cleaning up after) his loudmouthed, nagging, demanding brother.
To Sharky’s annoyance, Richard has invited Nicky Giblin (Tim Ruddy), a boyfriend of Sharky’s ex-wife, over to play poker. Things begin hopping when Nicky arrives with another player, a polite, soft-spoken, well-tailored gent named Mr. Lockhart, who’s been crawling all the local pubs with him. Mr. Lockhart, it transpires, is no ordinary mortal but a satanic collector of souls.
Twenty-five years earlier, Sharky, having drunkenly killed a homeless man, met this Mephistophelian fellow in jail. They played a Faustian game of poker, the prize being either Sharky’s freedom or his soul. Sharky won but with the proviso that the loser would one day come back for a rematch. Thus his appearance now, with the second act centering on the five men playing that fatal game, its stakes known only to Sharky and the guest.
The Seafarer’s naturalistic atmosphere actually strengthens the impact of its supernatural ingredients. The more you believe in what you see and hear, the more chilling it is when things you might not otherwise believe occur. McPherson heightens his vibrant, if talky, play just enough to sustain credibility, making Mr. Lockhart’s powers seem all the more potent for the restraint with which they’re expressed.
Beer and whiskey continually slosh down actors’ throats as they project McPherson’s richly humorous language in brogues as thick (and sometimes as impenetrable) as an Irish fog. McPhillamy and Mellamphy, in their cups, are like senior and junior Falstaffs, one blind and one—his glasses lost—nearly so, bellowing out convincing performances of pickled pathos and unruliness.
Murray, his granite-like features resembling a Jason Statham who’s been in too many bar fights, creates a three-dimensional image of a capable man, burdened by guilt, and, perhaps seeking redemption, trying to stay afloat in a sinking world.
Ruddy is excellent as Nicky, but his appearance as a natty dude in a costly-looking leather jacket and designer jeans contrasts oddly with McPherson’s description of “a tatty looking anorak [in] threadbare gray slacks that are slightly too short for him.” In the script, Nicky, needing collateral, is fibbing when he claims his jacket’s a Versace worth a couple of thousand euros. It’s a small point but, by Nicky’s wearing one that may not be a Versace but looks expensive (and new), McPherson’s irony would seem to be undercut.
Broderick, whose accent is the least authentic and consistent, brings his still boyish appeal to Mr. Lockhart, which, with his low-key manner, has a certain value in its contrast with the broader characterizations around him. Unfortunately, the feeling of inertia he exudes deprives the character of any aura of enigmatic danger, surely a leak in this ship’s hull.
Regardless of such leaky faults, however, The Seafarer refuses to sink. To which we say: sail on, McPherson.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through May 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).