In order to assess the Irish Repertory Theatre’s top-notch production of The Seafarer, it’s necessary to drop a spoiler concerning a significant plot point. Should you plan to see this show based on a liking for Matthew Broderick, who delivers a damned fine performance, or simply because you enjoy modern Irish drama, and story spoilers throw you off, stop reading this now. Got that?
All right then, let’s get on with it:
Richly-detailed acting fortifies a supernatural Christmas story in The Seafarer, which ranks among the best of Conor McPherson’s haunted tales of modern-day Ireland. The play previously was staged on Broadway in late 2007 with a company led by David Morse and Ciaran Hinds.
It is a dark and entertaining tale that looks sordid in its messy circumstances of five middle-aged men getting sozzled on whiskey, beer and moonshine while playing poker in a squalid parlor. Yet it proves to be, finally, a story of amazing grace forged by the redemptive power of fraternal love.
The brothers here are Sharky (Andy Murray) and Richard (Colin McPhillamy), working-class guys in their seedy fifties who uncomfortably share a rundown home in the northern suburbs of Dublin. Sharky is an out of work van driver who now keeps an eye on Richard, an odd-jobber who recently lost his vision in a dumpster-diving mishap. It is Christmas Eve morning and while Sharky is keeping morosely sober, a bleary Richard and their buddy Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), hiding out from an angry wife, drown their hangovers in booze.
As the day dissolves into a stormy evening, Nicky (Tim Ruddy), a chum involved with Sharky’s ex-wife, drops by for holiday drinks. Accompanying him is a stranger, Mr. Lockhart (Broderick), a neatly dressed and pleasantly mannered gent who … here comes that spoiler … reveals himself as the devil to Sharky. Some 25 years before, Sharky eluded a murder rap by beating the devil at cards. At the end of their jailhouse encounter, Sharky promised the devil a future rematch.
So here he is: “We’re gonna play for your soul,” says Lockhart. “And I’m gonna win, and you’re coming through the old hole in the wall with me tonight, Sharky.”
Festering personal regrets mingled with themes of isolation are distilled by McPherson into the second act of The Seafarer, which he has composed as a brew of ceaseless profanity, brogue-ish blarney and casual magical realism. The play’s few lyrical passages are scary, as when Lockhart describes to Sharky the icy loneliness that awaits souls embedded forever in hell. The story further turns suspenseful as the men drunkenly play poker, some of them more intently than others.
Ciaran O’Reilly, the director, achieves a unified sense of ensemble playing from the actors, dressed by Martha Hally in grubby everyday clothes. A clueless Nicky and the bumbling Ivan are respectively and credibly depicted by Ruddy and Mellamphy. The bullet-headed Murray gives Sharky a grim face and a growing sense of sad resignation to his fate. McPhillamy invests the domineering Richard with a blithely jeering nature intercut by shifts into self-pity. Wearing a little mustache and a nearly constant smile on his lips, Broderick portrays Lockhart with a deceptively genial manner that contrasts with the heartless devil he occasionally unmasks.
Set designer Charlie Corcoran furnishes with solidly realistic verisimilitude a crummy, begrimed room that takes a beating at every performance. A reddish glow from the stove is magnified by lighting designer Brian Nason into hellish intensity whenever Lockhart’s infernal alter ego prevails. Nason also lights up one corner of the place with a suggestion that a heavenly force watches over the brothers.
The Seafarer opened April 18, 2018, at Irish Repertory Theatre and runs through May 24. Tickets and information: irishrep.org