I have a thing for the devil. He — or it — is the immortal reject, the essence of loneliness, of the eternally disappointed desire to belong. The devil wants friends. He wants a bit of his own back. He wants without object. He’s an addict never satisfied by the fix. So of course the devil is a gambler. He likes games, riddles, tests. He’s viciously competitive and easily bored. Eternity is horribly boring. The devil’s got to keep things interesting.
Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, now in a solid, entertaining revival by director Ciarán O’Reilly at the Irish Rep — featuring the usually winsome Matthew Broderick — is a delicious devil story. The play shares its name with the famous Anglo-Saxon poem whose unknown author, in a translation by Richard Hamer, provides McPherson’s epigraph: “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 with icicles, / While hail flew past in shower.”
In the lonely voice of this ancient mariner, McPherson heard the Morning Star. The devil is also a traveler, houseless and hearthless. “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” Marlowe’s Mephistopheles answers when Faustus asks him what he’s doing outside the bottomless pit. Hell follows the devil wherever he goes, and so in The Seafarer, in the twilight hours of some recent Christmas Eve, hell comes to the sleepy little coastal town of Baldoyle, somewhere north of Dublin.
As is McPherson’s style, The Seafarer slowly unfolds its murkier depths under a surface of deceptively casual banter. It’s not a play where much “happens.” Its characters’ primary actions are talking and drinking, its central event, a game of cards. But for two of the players, that game has eternal stakes. Our hapless hero is James Harkin, known as “Sharky” to his friends. He’s hit middle age hard, he’s out of a job, he’s two days on the wagon, and he’s moved in with his older brother, Richard, a grandiloquent drunk who’s recently lost his eyesight in an accident and requires constant assistance to do things like get up the stairs to bed, as opposed to sleeping in a rumpled heap on the living room floor.
That’s where Richard is when the play begins, on a particularly inauspicious Christmas Eve morning. The house a mess, the brothers’ soppy, ineffectual friend Ivan is still loafing around, hung-over from the night before, and Sharky is listlessly attempting to tidy up. Charlie Corcoran’s densely packed scenic design gives us all the grubby details of Richard and Sharky’s cramped, two-level flat — the fading framed Jameson poster on the wall is a nice touch, with an equally faded Virgin Mary right underneath. Priorities.
Outside the apartment’s thinly curtained windows, Brian Nason’s chilly lights and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab’s blustery sound design evoke a day you wouldn’t want to be out in. “God, it’s freezing!” roars Richard as he wakes. Sharky pokes at the fire, but his efforts won’t make much difference. The house is about to get a whole lot colder.
Despite the easy, habitual nature of McPherson’s dialogue — Richard holds forth, Sharky broods, Ivan splutters and conciliates and searches lucklessly for his missing glasses — there’s tension in the air. By the end of Act One, that foreboding has taken human (or human-like) shape in the form of the well-dressed, soft-spoken Mr. Lockhart, a stranger who arrives with another mutual friend, the cheerful, posturing Nicky Giblin. “What did you have to go and invite Nicky Giblin up here for?” Sharky snapped at his brother earlier. Nicky, we learn, is dating Sharky’s former girlfriend and driving his former car, and Sharky, growing surlier in his sobriety as those around him grow drunker, has no desire to revisit those painful memories.
McPherson’s plays are full of hauntings — Shining City follows a man who’s been visited by his dead wife, and The Weir is a series of ghost stories told on a dark night in a bar. His characters are hiding from the specters that torment them, trying to outrun or outdrink their failures, mistakes, and losses. But a bad penny always turns up. And now here’s Mr. Lockhart — we all know who he really is — standing in Sharky’s parlor and reminding him that they’ve played cards before, 25 years ago, in a cell in the Bridewell police station from which Sharky, having won the game, eventually went free. But the thing Sharky did that landed him in that cell — that thing remains. And he owes Mr. Lockhart another game, this one played for keeps.
Part of the pleasure of The Seafarer is the way that McPherson weaves a story of one man’s fate — a mano a mano (or mano a diablo) encounter — into a robust ensemble drama. Only Sharky and Mr. Lockhart know the stakes of the poker game the men all sit down to play. Only they drive the story’s plot, such as it is. But McPherson develops all five players fully and distinctly, and O’Reilly is clearly having a grand time with his ensemble, who play off each other with bounce and ease. Andy Murray gives the play a firm center as Sharky, a man who’s tried to file down his rough edges, who’s struggling to suppress his anger and disappointment and muscle his way through the gray, cold days. We can sense his danger bubbling under the surface, but it takes a long time for the pot to boil.
In the meantime, his constrained energy creates room for the broader, more demonstrative characters. Michael Mellamphy makes a good-natured, pitiful, all-too-recognizable schlub as Ivan, and Tim Ruddy has a nice feel for Nicky’s lame attempts at cool, but it’s Colin McPhillamy as Richard who really slips the show into his pocket. With a roaring voice, a bleery thousand-yard stare, and an ebullient, dominating energy despite his physical predicament, McPhillamy’s Richard has something Falstaffian about him. He can be vicious to his brother, but he loves and needs him desperately. He’s a pontificating drunken wreck, and he’s also a wit, an intellect, a fierce friend, and an indomitable life force. You get the feeling that McPherson made him blind because, if he had his eyes, he could see right through Mr. Lockhart. He’d be the game’s most formidable player if he didn’t have a handicap.
As Mr. Lockhart himself, Broderick is an interesting choice, compelling if not always visceral. His career has tended toward likable guys, some morally straighter than others, and his Mr. Lockhart is most successful in the character’s smoother, more personable moments. Speaking with a lilt that sounds a little more clipped, a little more affected than the voices of his fellow actors (whether or not it’s a choice, it works for the character), Broderick makes Mr. Lockhart into a bit of an aesthete. He’s philosophical, reserved, full of deference for the hospitality he’s receiving, even fading into the background at times behind Richard and Nicky’s hearty bluster. All this works well, and it makes you excited for the moment when the snake in the garden will finally show its fangs. I only wish I’d been more thoroughly shaken when it did. Broderick is still fun to watch when, alone with Sharky, Mr. Lockhart reveals his true nature, though he’s not downright chilling. O’Reilly might also have helped him more: Having the prince of darkness step gingerly up onto a coffee table to make his deadly pronouncement that “We’re gonna play for your soul and I’m gonna win and you’re coming through the old hole in the wall with me tonight” perhaps isn’t the most harrowing piece of blocking.
But Broderick still does right by the character, especially when Mr. Lockhart gives in to ennui. “Well, that is one maudlin fucker!” Richard declares about him at one point to uproarious laughter. It’s a hilarious moment, and a sad one. Though Sharky’s trial and his potential redemption is our moral focal point, McPherson’s play isn’t named for him. Its title pays homage to the eternal wanderer, the exile tossing on an ice-cold sea, and O’Reilly’s production is a generous, well-told rendition of one chapter in that immortal gambler’s story.
First performed in 2006, with its roles for five men (most likely white) in their 40s and 50s, The Seafarer isn’t exactly the kind of play American, or at least New York, theaters are rushing to program these days. That’s fine — good, even. But it’s a beautiful, funny, mournful piece of writing by a playwright who’s got an acute ear for his native vernacular and a gift for crafting wily, satisfying yarns, and I’m glad that the Irish Rep exists to keep plays like it and writers like McPherson in thoughtful circulation.
The Seafarer is at the Irish Repertory Theater through May 24.