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A CurtainUp Review
The Seafarer

  Added Thoughts

He knows not
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea
Wretched and anxious in the paths of exile
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles
While hail flew past in showers
—Translated from Anglo Saxon by Richard Hamer (As it appears before the written text of the play)
— Anonymous: The Seafarer c. 755 AD

Look I don't know what's going on here, or if Nicky's put you up to this, but I have to say I don't know what you're talking about. — Sharky
Are you serious? — Mr. Lockhart
(Those two exchanges really sum up the play)
The Seafarer
Jim Norton, Sean Mahon and Conleth Hill in The Seafarer. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
There is a legacy of Irish dramatic literature that doesn't need to be addressed here. But the one aspect of the Gaelic personality that has remained a constant in many of the plays by Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Eugene O'Neill, Brian Friel, and Martin McDonagh, to name but a few of the best, is the presence in their plays of heavy drinkers. This prerequisite of drinking propels the action and sustains the characters and the often brilliant bursts of dialogue they speak — and helps us tolerate the otherwise intolerable. Conor McPherson has become one of the most lauded of recently produced Irish playwrights, with the weird The Weir and the even weirder The Shining City ranking particularly high.

In The Seafarer, a veritable convergence of drunks of a feather, McPherson continues to take his cue from the masters as well as from the presumably compelling artistic spirit that drives him personally. It is a quality that may appear to be simply dispiriting to those who have to endure the longueurs that come from spending Christmas Eve morning and evening in the company of characters under the influence of a playwright who makes no apology for the general inertia and the self-perpetuating dullness.

McPherson has also opted to direct his play, a decision that support the generally subscribed to wisdom that this is usually a very bad idea. An objective director would have no difficulty cutting at least one hour from the two and one half hours of redundant and repetitive action, much of it defined by a protracted game of poker and actors acting up a storm.

What are we to make of four men, brothers and their two long-time friends of no perceptible distinction? One of them, however, does interest the Devil. Oh yes, the Devil himself is a presence — a real and palpable Irish one named Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), who, we unsurprisingly find out, is as capable of getting as stinking drunk as the best of them.

The currently unemployed James "Sharky" Harkin (David Morse) has tried his hand as a fisherman, a van driver and a chauffeur but currently has his hands full taking care of his older brother Richard (Jim Norton), who recently was blinded from a fall into a dumpster on Halloween. Neither of the brothers, who are in their fifties, has been married, although Sharky was recently fired for having an affair with his boss's wife. Sharky has been on the wagon for two days, the cause of his moping around. He's also trying to get the bossy and ornery Richard to clean himself up for Christmas.

As the play opens Richard has pulled himself off the floor after spending the previous night sleeping behind an arm chair in the modestly furnished basement living room of the brother's house in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin. You may get a chuckle from designer Rae Smith's setting that includes the scrawniest, pathetically decorated Christmas tree you are likely to see this holiday season. A literal bit of bathroom humor, that involves flushing the toilet, segues to the more pressing issue of deciding the menu du jour for the guests who have been invited to celebrate Christmas. An invitation is hardly necessary for Ivan (Conleth Hill), a holdover from the previous night who stumbles downstairs. Thrown out of his own house by his wife, the myopic Ivan has misplaced his glasses but not his instinct for locating the booze for himself and Richard.

The plot thickens or curdles, depending on your attention span, as Nicky (Sean Mahon), a friend of Richard's arrives with the well-dressed Mr. Lockhart who we discover has a 25 year-old debt to settle with Sharkey. It won't be spoiling anything to reveal the nature of that debt: Mr. Lockhart has come to claim Sharky's soul. That the tables are miraculously turned in a climactic moment is less a surprise than a relief.

Revelations that Sharkey and Ivan have in the past caused the death of people when under the influence, and that Nicky is now living with Sharkey's girl friend add some moral gravity to the plot. There is also an opportunity for characters to redeem themselves, although it comes as an over simplified excuse for the play to end. Stumbling about and making faces allows Hill, as the pathetically perpetually drunk Ivan, to get some easy laughs. Norton as the domineering Richard seems to be having a ball savagely milking every sour and insincere line for all its worth.

Hinds gives the devil his due by being slimy and subtle, yet prone to sudden rages. He also gets severe headaches when a Christmas Carol is rendered by the men or heard on the radio. The best you can say for Mahon, as the unwittingly entrapped Nicky, is that he is a damned good and good-looking actor and that's okay. Morse, also a fine actor, has his work cut out for him as Sharky, whose job it is to make us care what happens to him.

The Playbill informs us that McPherson was inspired by the old Irish myth of the Hellfire Club, the 18th century clubs renowned for accommodating the devil and excessive drinking. This may be McPherson's way of explaining Irish Hell (through Mr. Lockhart's monologue), as "a permanent and crippling form of self-loathing?" How much better it would have been if McPherson had accommodated the audience that had waited patiently for more than a winning hand at poker.

Links to Other McPherson Plays reviewed at Curtainup
St. Nicholas - 1998
This Lime Tree Bower -1999
The Good Thief -2001
Port Authority -2001
Rum and Vodka -2002
Dublin Carol-2003
Shining City -2006
Added Thoughts From a Reader
Editor's Note: We've had quite a bit of email from viewers commenting on this less than enthusiastic review. One of our regular readers and someone we know to be a frequent and intelligent theater goer, made an interesting case for both agreeing and disagreeing with our review and we therefore —with her permission— add it as a postscript before the production notes. I was particularly taken with Irene's suggestion that McPherson follow not just his Irish literary forbears, but, revisit the much done Irish family play within the context of a modern and thriving Ireland. —e.s.

Simon Saltzman seems to be something of a shipwrecked sailor as the lone dissenter in a sea of Seafarer enthusiasts. Not being a critic but an ordinary paying customer, I found myself somewhere in the middle.

That long first act struck me as an all too familiar variation of the Irish play with it's humor relying on cussin' and fussin' and endless imbibing. We've seen other kin (dysfunctgional brothers seem to be a favorite family combo) forced by circumstance to live together in gloomy houses. McPherson's brothers are brought together by Sharky's having lost his latest job and coming home to care for his older brother Bill who lost his eyesight as a result of a drink-related Thanksgiving mishap. Their brogues are thicker than Irish stew and to pump things up there's a colorful outsider who sabotages Sharky's effort to keep Bill reasonably sober.

The first act is pretty much a set-up for the meat and potatoes of what's to come and The Seafarer would be much more seaworthy as far as I'm concerned if it cut right to the chase—. the poker game with McPherson's combination Dickensian Scrooge and Faustian Mephistopheles, the mysterious Mr. Lockhart. When that poker game becomes a game of redemption it turns the picturesque blathering into suspenseful drama and draws all of us into Lockhart's chilling vision of the hell as a coffin deep benath the sea. This metaphor for the prisons self-hate builds for Sharky is something we can all identify with and it is in this final act that McPherson validates his standing as one of the best contemporary torch bearers for the Irish story telling tradition. The actors play the game so magnificently that the tedious first act is forgivable.

And so, I agree and disagree with Mr. Saltzman's review. If that first act had been condensed and merged with the second, I'd be right in there with those who have declared it to be the greatest thing since Irish soda bread. —

Finally, having seen most of Mr. McPherson's earlier monologues that have been produced in New York, I was also pleased to see him continue to broaden his canvas, as he did in Shining City, with a larger cast and a departure from the monologue format. As a still young playwright, I'd like to see him leave the old-time Irish drinking tales long enough to write a play about economically thriving modern Ireland and perhaps, like Tracy Letts, write an August: Dublin Town. — Irene Connelly Safran, New York, NY.

The Seafarer
  Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
The National Theatre of Great Britain production
  Cast: Conleth Hill (Ivan Curry), Ciaran Hinds (Mr. Lockhart), Sean Mahon (Nicky Giblin), David Morse (Sharky Harkin) and Jim Norton (Richard Harkin).
  Set and Costume Design: Rae Smith
  Lighting Design: Neil Austin
  Sound Design: Mathew Smethurst-Evans
  Fight Director:Thomas Schall
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
  Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street
  (212) 239 – 6200 or
  Tickets ($98.50 - $76.50)
  Performances Schedule: Tuesday – Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
  From 10/30/07; opened 12/06/07
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on 12/05/07 performance
Last performance 3/30/08

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