Broderick Photos by Carol Rosegg
By Ron Cohen
It’s a thick,
beefy Irish stew of a play, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, saturated in
alcohol and – as you might expect in a McPherson opus -- spookily seasoned with
the supernatural. Originally produced in London in 2006 and then mounted on
Broadway in 2007, it now is being served up with inexhaustible relish in a
revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre, featuring a superlative cast led by
Matthew Broderick and directed with moment-to-moment perfection by IRT’s
co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly.
Matthew Broderick, Michael Mellamphy, Andy Murray, Tim
Ruddy, Colin McPhillamy
characters are mainly irrepressible slobs, their middle-age years stalled in a
sort of juvenile machismo, drinking their way through a Christmas Eve card
game, but the magic of McPherson’s writing – and the production as well -- is
that they don’t inspire revulsion. Quite the opposite, their outsized or
harried personalities – the camaraderie or at least tolerance they show for one
another despite the frequent flareups of temper and abuse – quickly grow on
you, and yes, you even like them.
You may not
want to spend your own Christmas Eve with them, but then again, why not? It’s
quite an eventful night in the house shared in the outskirts of Dublin by
Richard Harkin, a big boisterous guy recently blinded when he fell into a
dumpster and hit his head, and his younger brother James, known as Sharky.
Sharky is the
seafarer of the title, and the title itself references an ancient Anglo-Saxon
poem depicting the wretched loneliness of working at sea. Sharky once worked on
fishing boats, but his temper and drinking put an end to that. Most recently he
has been working in County Clare as a chauffeur, but now has returned to Dublin
to care for his blind, demanding brother.
Christmas Eve morning as the play begins, and Sharky, a man attempting to stay
sober, is cleaning up the mess left in the wake of a bout of drinking by
Richard and his pal Ivan. As the day progresses, breakfast is consumed along
with quite a bit of whiskey, Ivan worries about his wife’s reactions, plans are
made for the holiday celebration, including a Christmas Eve card game, and the
three leave to do some grocery and liquor shopping.
shopping, the three are joined by a fourth guy, Nicky Giblin, invited by
Richard for the card game, much against Sharky’s wishes. After all, Nicky stole
Sharky’s girlfriend and in the bargain, Nicky also got Sharky’s car.
tensions are raised even higher by the new acquaintance Nicky has brought along
for the card playing, a fellow he met earlier that day in a pub, a surprisingly
well-turned-out, well-spoken gent by the name of Mr. Lockhart.
moment when Sharky and Mr. Lockhart are left alone, and we learn who Lockhart
actually is. Yea, he’s the devil himself, come to play poker for Sharky’s soul.
It’s the final piece of a bargain struck twenty-five years earlier, when Sharky
escaped punishment after a brawl in which a man was killed.
The card game
takes up much of the play’s second half, a mood of suspense rippling under the
rich palaver of the players, three of them totally innocent of the high stakes
being played for. The brogue is so thick you may need the proverbial knife to
cut through it, but the great performances certainly communicate the drift of
what’s happening, and the rowdy lyricism of the speech makes for its own kind
of beguiling music, whether you grasp every word or not.
McPhillamy is a force of needy nature as Richard, whether he’s bellowing at
Sharky for instantaneous aid, banging blindly into a wall, expressing joy at
the thought of more drink, or imitating a banshee to scare away the winos who
have infiltrated his house’s back lane. It’s a persona engagingly
counterpointed by Michael Mellamphy’s Ivan, a sympathetic mild-mannered pal,
who can’t seem to escape Richard’s thrall to get home to his wife and kids for
Christmas. When he shares a poker hand with Richard – Ivan supplying the sight
and Richard the money – it’s a great piece of prolonged business.
compellingly communicates the inner turmoil of Sharky, a man whose life -- and
now his soul as well – are being threatened from seemingly every direction,
including County Clare, where it’s hinted he may have had an affair with his
boss’s wife. Tim Ruddy makes Nicky a fairly affable fellow, brushing off
Sharky’s ire at least for awhile, and showing off his leather jacket, which he
proudly proclaims is a Versace.
artfully sculpts Lockhart as a quietly foreboding and commanding overseer of
Hell. The tempered, other-worldly persona which often marks Broderick’s acting
works wonderfully here, and there are a couple of hair-raising moments when he
actually breaks through it to display a burst of blazing ferocity.
As he did in
his acclaimed appearance two years ago at Irish Rep in McPherson’s Shining City,
Broderick flavors his speech with an Irish lilt that – in contrast to the heavy
brogues elsewhere on stage – never sacrifices clarity. And one of the play’s
most mesmerizing moments comes when Lockhart gives Sharky a description of what
hell is really like. It’s not little devils running around with pitchforks.
It’s a lot more chilling.
unsettling is the disparaging description by Lockhart of human beings as
insects, the ramifications of divine-to-human transformation, another one of
the play’s brilliantly dark pieces of writing.
The mood is
sustained by the gloomy, rotting gentility of Richard and Sharky’s domicile, as
envisioned in Charlie Corcoran’s clutter-filled set and Brian Nason’s lighting,
capturing the passing of the hours. From the mismatched pajamas worn by Sharky
in the opening moments to the Versace jacket shown off with such pride by
Nicky, Martha Hally’s costumes add to our understanding of McPherson’s
assured you’re going to wind up caring for these sorry Irish rogues, and also
breathing a little easier for Sharky as McPherson winds up his story with a
twist that’s happy but hardly happy-ever-after.
the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd