nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 7, 2007
"'Twas a dark and stormy night" could well be the opening lines of Conor McPherson's new play, The Seafarer. It has the feel of a spooky old late night campfire story, right down to the surprise twist ending. But, McPherson's play also touches upon deeper issues, like mankind's struggle with inner demons and how it stares down seemingly insurmountable adversity. Deftly directed by the author himself, The Seafarer's gripping new Broadway production is humorous, chilling, and profound, and features what may be the best ensemble cast in town right now.
It's Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin, and the Harkin brothers are getting ready for the evening's festivities. Older brother Richard is a festive drunk who relies on the help of others (a recent fall has left him totally blind), while the younger Sharky is haunted by a failed marriage, a string of dead-end jobs, and his own drinking. The two men are preparing for their anticipated houseguests, both drinking buddies of Richard's: the fumbling-and-bumbling Ivan, who spends as much as time as he can away from his henpecking wife; and the vaguely foppish Nicky, who has uncomfortably taken up with Sharky's ex-wife. The night will undoubtedly hold a lot of drinking for everyone, except Sharky. He's been "off the drink" for two days now and is trying to shake his turbulent past and turn over a new leaf. Hard to accomplish in a house full of ridiculing drunks, but he's going for it anyway.
Into this volatile mix comes Mr. Lockhart, a well-dressed stranger Nicky befriends at the pub and brings along with him. At first, Mr. Lockhart is a gracious and grateful houseguest who brings an air of distinction and class to the evening. But it soon turns out that his appearance is not quite as random as it seems to be.
Mr. Lockhart's arrival brings with it the first of The Seafarer's many wickedly delightful surprises. This one has already been so well-publicized that I feel no remorse about revealing it: Mr. Lockhart is actually The Devil himself, come to collect on an old debt of Sharky's. All five men embark on a highly-charged evening of card-playing to decide the final outcome, with Sharky's soul hanging in the balance.
If it sounds like I've spoiled The Seafarer, don't worry: there are many more twists in store. McPherson deploys a sharp sense of foreshadowing that gives viewers hints of what's to come right from the start, and a such-is-life sense of gallows humor that keeps things afloat in a steady current of whiskey-fueled comedy and pathos. Delicious little details—like the careless way Richard uses his blazer as a napkin and the comical way Ivan holds his cards practically against his nose so he can see them (he's lost his glasses)—color in the total picture throughout.
The writing isn't perfect by any means, however. Much of the initial exposition and set-up is slightly confusing, as we wonder just how Richard and Sharky are related, and who the other men are to them. And the revelation of Mr. Lockhart's identity is just random and incongruous enough to register in the "Totally Out of Left Field" column.
McPherson pulls it all together, though, for a second act that is pure dynamite. He has a clear idea of how he wants the story to build dramatically, and expresses it beautifully as both writer and director. Staged on Rae Smith's two-story set sans walls, the production is surrounded by a vast darkness indicative of a similar metaphorical void which knowingly or unknowingly envelops the characters. And the script contains some passages that deserve to become instant classics. Most notable among these is Mr. Lockhart's Act II description of what Hell is like—a visually and descriptively sumptuous speech that gets a virtuoso reading from Ciaran Hinds (who delivers a magnificently powerhouse performance as Mr. Lockhart).
The rest of the cast does equally spellbinding work. Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, and Sean Mahon are the comic relief as Richard, Ivan, and Nicky, respectively. They get the lion's share of the laughs and make the most of them, conjuring the wiliest trio of stage drunks to be seen in a while. Norton is particularly commanding from his frequent downstage perch (a comfy looking easy chair), while Hill induces belly laughs with a highly-stocked arsenal of facial and physical humor that suggests he may be channeling Benny Hill. Best of all is David Morse, who anchors the play with a leading-man dose of stoic gravitas, imposing physicality (he looks like he's about 6' 4"), and fiery temperament. Shortly after Mr. Lockhart's terrifying oratorio about Hell, Morse's Sharky unleashes a similarly frightening tantrum that convinces the audience that if anyone stands a chance of beating The Devil, it's him.
There are many other things about The Seafarer to recommend it, but they are better seen than talked about here. Sidle up next to the fire being generated on stage at the Booth Theatre, and take in this darkly humorous and supernatural tale the way it's supposed to be experienced: as if on a dark and stormy night.