As The Seafarer, Conor McPherson’s intense five-character play begins, James “Sharky” Harkin (Andy Murray) is descending the stairs of his somewhat cramped two-storey home in a small coastal corner of Ireland—Baldoyle, County Dublin. On the way, he stops to adjust a mechanical votive device under a picture of a radiant Jesus. The reddish light flickers but doesn’t take.
It could be that Sharky’s prompting the uncooperative apparatus isn’t especially meaningful, but assuming that is a mistake. A symbolic gesture has just occurred and is a sly hint at what’s to come in the prolific McPherson’s not-so-slightly magic realist play that director Ciarán O’Reilly shapes into a commendably persistent production.
For the first hunk of the 2006 work, as it propulsively thrusts across the footlights, The Seafarer impresses as just about as realist an enterprise as could be imagined. It’s Christmas Eve, and Sharky is at the beck and call of his recently blinded brother Richard (Colin McPhillamy). It’s clear he always is under the nasty man’s thick thumb, but Sharky puts up with Richard, a demanding bully constantly charging his brother with being insufferable. Of course, it’s Richard—in need of a shave and wearing mismatched socks—who’s the bibulously insufferable one.
After a barrage of charged words, the brothers are joined by hungover friend Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), who has apparently stayed overnight for fear of going home to his wife and children in his drunken state—and without the glasses he seems to have misplaced.
And here’s as good a place as any to assert that while for decades (centuries?) it’s common knowledge that the Irish drink, it could be that no play about Irish imbibing comes anywhere near the amount of liquor poured and quaffed in The Seafarer. (Not even in The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s play now in revival at the Jacobs with Denzel Washington starring.) I suppose it’s my imagination that after observing all the drama’s elbows-upping, some exiting patrons were actually tipsy.
When this Christmas Eve day ekes into evening, two more guests arrive to make up a poker game that’s apparently a Christmas Eve tradition for these Baldoyle denizens. They’re Nicky Giblin (Tim Ruddy), a slick fellow in a Versace jacket whom Sharky doesn’t care for, and a well-dressed stranger introduced as Mr. Lockhart (Matthew Broderick).
It would be another mistake to disregard the implication of the Lockhart name. That’s because before too long the soft-spoken, seemingly affable man announces, when he and Sharky are momentarily alone, that he’s there to claim the soul Sharky promised him 25 years earlier after an ill-fated barroom brawl. As lighting designer Brian Nason’s red glow occasionally substantiates, Mr. Lockhart is the Devil incarnate.
Needless to say, this is when McPherson’s hard-core realism morphs into surreality and yet holds on to the realism strains. As the increasingly inebriated second-act poker game continues—with Sharky doing well and Mr. Lockhart apparently losing—those two are the only ones around the card table who understand that a man’s life is what’s really at stake.
The suspense on which McPherson builds his play—with, by the way, its many laugh lines—rests on the final poker hand. The result and then the twist on the result that McPherson has devious fun with won’t be revealed here, though it may be fair enough to suggest that the playwright ropes in another seemingly throwaway script detail for a wonderful surprise denouement.
Thinking about The Seafarer—note that McPherson takes his title from a grim Anglo-Saxon poem translated by Richard Hamer—a spectator may start thinking that abutting the realism with the surreal is awkward. I definitely have that impression. Somehow the juxtaposition keeps chipping away at complete enjoyment.
None of that compromises what director O’Reilly has unfolding on Charlie Corcoran’s set—or the meaningful electrical storm that sound designers Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab allow to erupt. Some of the best ensemble acting carrying on these days is hopping on the Irish Repertory stage. It’s the kind of acting that defies acting and just is.
Take Broderick. Billed in larger typeface than the others for his abiding star power, he often behaves on stage as if the figure he’s playing has an amusing secret he’ll never confide. Here, as the thin-mustachioed Lockhart, he’s got a diabolical secret he’s not going to divulge. Doing so, he delivers one of his best-ever turns.
Of the others, McPhillamy as the volatile, often suddenly conciliatory Richard has the showiest role. Playing a man the audience loves to hate, he’s masterful. Murray, particularly while silently regarding Mr. Lockhart during the game, is also a focus-stealer. The same goes for Mellamphy and Ruddy.
How is The Seafarer faring while examining up close and personal the sorrowful, unexpressed reasons for hopeless drinking that afflicts these men? Quite well, indeed.
The Seafarer opened April 18, 2018, at the Irish Repertory Theatre and runs until May 24. Tickets and information: irishrep.org