Through much of its first act, The Seafarer had me thinking, "Aw, geez, not another Irish play about two cantankerous relatives forced to share a messy house and getting drunk all the time." For nearly an hour in this National Theatre of Great Britain production, the Harkin brothers snipe at each other in colorful brogues while friend Ivan searches for his glasses and worries about the row his imbibing will cause with his unforgiving wife. Richard (Jim Norton) has recently been blinded in an accident, and Sharky (David Morse), his younger sibling, who can't hold a job or maintain a romantic relationship, has returned to care for him. We've seen this Gaelic scenario before, particularly in Martin McDonagh plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. But this is a Conor McPherson play and, as in The Weir, Shining City, and St. Nicholas, the supernatural makes an appearance and mundane interactions become dramas of life and death.
Without revealing too much of the plot, a Christmas Eve poker game with a mysterious visitor named Mr. Lockhart (Ciarรกn Hinds) forces Sharky to face his wasted past and overcome his self-loathing. Hint: That poker game is similar to the chess game in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and Hinds would not look uncomfortable with a red cape and a pair of horns. Granted, McPherson's dramatic device is a creaky one, and the play could easily have turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone, but the playwright emphasizes the theme of redemption over spooky effects. McPherson subtly shows that the vision of hell described by Lockhart is actually the prison Sharky — and potentially all of us — creates for himself. The game itself is suspensefully played and will have you on the proverbial edge of your seat. The resolution is unexpected and leaves the audience cheering.
Not that this is a perfect play. It would have been more effective as a long one-act — nothing would be lost by cutting the repetitive scenes demonstrating the squalor of the brothers' home life. But once the central premise is established, The Seafarer plows ahead like a full-masted schooner in full sail under the strong helmsmanship of McPherson, who serves as his own director.
Hinds makes Lockhart more than a symbol of evil; he's marvelously menacing but also believably justifies his actions by exposing his jealousy of those who have friends and family. McPherson veteran Jim Norton shows us the nasty-tempered drunk in Richard but also the loving brother and faithful believer. Conleth Hill leans a little heavily on the comic shtick he employed when playing half an Irish town in Stones in His Pockets, but his Ivan is a convincingly pitiable schlep unsuccessfully balancing his family, the need for a pint, and a dark secret. David Morse has the most difficult assignment as Sharky. For much of the play he's required to react silently to the more flamboyant performances of Hinds and Norton. His eloquent face conveys the turmoil within. Sean Mahon lends effective support as the cocky Nicky, another poker player, who is currently involved with Sharkey's ex.
Rae Smith's untidy set conveys the desolation and darkness of Sharky and Richard's existence, while Neil Austin's lighting shades it and reveals the bright morning that marks the final curtain.
Presented by Ostar Productions, Bob Boyett, Roy Furman, Lawrence Horowitz, Jam Theatricals, Bill Rollnick/Nancy Ellison Rollnick, James D'Orta, Thomas S. Murphy, Ralph Guild/Jon Avnet, Philip Geier/Keough Partners, Eric Falkenstein/Max OnStage
at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC.
Dec. 6-March 30. Tue. -Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.
Casting by Laura Stanczyk and Howie Cherpakov.