Entertainment » Theatre

The Seafarer

by Rob Urbinati
Thursday May 10, 2018
Matthew Broderick and Andy Murray in "The Seafarer" at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Matthew Broderick and Andy Murray in "The Seafarer" at the Irish Repertory Theatre.  

In the middle of the first act of "The Seafarer," Conor McPherson's darkly comic morality tale, a man in a tailored black suit descends the stairs with preternatural calm and enters a squalid flat crammed with clutter. Mr. Lockhart's suave manner is a stark contrast to the drunken, boisterous chaos that precedes his arrival. The man in the suit infuses the gritty realism of the play with mystery. The Devil has come for a game of cards, and the stakes are high.

It's Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, a coastal suburb of Dublin. Having lost his job and his wife, Sharky is caretaker for his cantankerous older brother Richard. Stoic and tormented, Sharky struggles to stay on the wagon. Richard, who's recently blind from a drunken spill, makes sure his brother cleans up after him and keeps his whiskey glass full. Richard's befuddled accomplice Ivan stumbles around, having lost his spectacles - and as the evening progresses, his car, and maybe his wife. Richard also invited the raffish, wired-up Nicky to this annual holiday bacchanal, which leads to trouble as Nicky is seeing Sharky's ex-wife. Nicky arrives with Mr. Lockhart, who played a game of poker with Sharky years ago in jail. When Sharky won, Lockhart set him free. Now, the Devil has come for a rematch so he can win back his soul.

Like the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon in "The Iceman Cometh," the booze-soaked characters in "The Seafarer" are haunted by demons. They bicker and rage and dredge up old grievances, shielded from their anguish by alcoholism. Richard and Ivan are drunk-blind, literally and spiritually. Sharky is desperately trying to escape all this before his rage detonates. He's "The Seafarer" in Ezra Pound's poem - a man alone and adrift.

The coarse eloquence of McPherson's Irish dialect is delivered in thick brogues slurred with drink. The dialogue sounds absolutely authentic, and as a result, some of it is a challenge to understand. The characters' desperation, fear, and regret, along with the horrors of addiction, temper the caustic humor in the script.

McPherson adores his characters. He indulges their excesses, and it takes a while for the play to get going. But his compassion for their ruined lives is genuine. They're losers, and gradually, a tenderness surfaces through the bickering and resentment, allowing for the not-so-surprising ending.

The ensemble is first-rate, and the intimacy of the Irish Repertory Theatre's space works to the play's advantage. Andy Murray, Colin McPhillamy, Michael Mellamphy, and Tim Ruddy give full-throttled, lived-in performances under CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly's vigorous, immaculate direction. The actors look grimly authentic; Nicky's pale skin and spiky hair; Richard and Ivan's cheeks mottled with drink, with their bellies hanging over their belts; and Sparky's craggy, stoic face masking his compassion. Costume designer Martha Hally contrasts Richard's stained, rumpled garb, Ivan's sports jersey and Nicky's knock-off Versace jacket with Mr. Lockhart's neat, professional appearance.

Matthew Broderick is an unusual choice for the role of the Devil: he's not your go-to actor for sinister menace. Yet his patented milquetoast quality pays off. Although Broderick is polite and deferential at first, seething fury lurks beneath his calm demeanor, and when it explodes from such a benign presence, it's all the more startling. He's truly terrifying delivering one of McPherson's lyrical monologues which depicts hell as a claustrophobic box where a person's self-loathing is intensified.

Richard's living room is a filthy pit in Charlie Corcoran's stunningly squalid design. The text is littered with references to spit, vomit, and piss, and the set almost reeks. "The Seafarer" borrows a Christian story for its plot, and Catholic elements are scattered throughout the design - a sad little Christmas tree, a faded portrait of Jesus with a red light that Sharky can't get to work, and a fireplace that glows like hellfire. During the scene transitions, Brian Nason's other-worldly light spills through a cathedral-like window with a votive candle on its ledge, and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab's sound design enhances the eerie atmosphere.

McPherson has merged naturalism and the supernatural to great effect in "The Weir" and "Shining City." The device of a visit from the Devil to take a soul to hell by winning a game of cards could be hokey, but in this playwright's hands, the spiritual ghost story is compelling, and ultimately, deeply moving. Before he leaves, Mr. Lockhart says to Sharky, "somebody up there likes you." As he ascends the stairs and exits, the red light under the portrait of Jesus that Sharky couldn't get to work suddenly lights up. The man's soul is worthy of redemption, and in the Irish Rep's production of "The Seafarer," and in Andy Murray's powerful performance, Sharky's salvation feels earned.

"The Seafarer" continues through May 24 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY. For more information and to learn about tickets, the Irish Repertory Theatre's website.

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