Leave it to Conor McPherson to turn Christmas Eve into a night of maudlin drunkenness attended upon by the Devil.
A poet laureate for the self-loathing alcoholic, McPherson routinely locates a sense of beauty and stubborn humanity within his downtrodden characters, often despite their best efforts to crawl inside a bottle to hide.
These master themes of the great Irish playwright are at the heart of The Seafarer, his 2006 play about guilt, rumination, and a card game for the highest of stakes. Under the direction of Ciaran O’Reilly, the Irish Rep’s vibrant production teems with life despite the consistent drag of its marquee name, Matthew Broderick. As was also true two years ago when Broderick was last on the Chelsea stage, in McPherson’s Shining City, the movie star’s performance stands out for its flatness against the backdrop of dynamic performances throughout the cast and the script’s sharp writing (and the less said about Broderick’s Irish accent the better). It is a testament to O’Reilly, McPherson, and the cast that the production overcomes such an impediment to prove a compelling, often quite funny reckoning with lost souls.
Sharky (Andy Murray) is a middle-aged alcoholic with a temper and a history of trouble who has returned home to a Dublin suburb from time spent working in the countryside. His older brother Richard (Colin McPhillamy) has recently gone blind (his sight lost after smacking his head falling into a dumpster on Halloween, like you do), and Sharky acts on a filial duty to take care of him. For his part, Richard remains full of bon homie: his condition is woeful, but whiskey is at hand and it’s Christmas time, so might as well drink up and enjoy. Christmas Eve finds Sharky and Richard visited by friends Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), Nicky (Tim Ruddy), and a mysterious new acquaintance of Nicky’s, Mr. Lockhart (Broderick). The lives of all these men are in various states of disrepair, but it’s Christmas: have a drink, play some cards!
It is not long before we learn Mr. Lockhart to be the Devil, come to claim across the card table a twenty-five-year-old marker for Sharky’s soul. Sharky, defiant but not seeing much worth living for anyway, decides to give him a game. The other four players may be unaware of it, but the game’s pot contains Sharky’s eternal soul.
McPherson writes his devil as a sharply dressed, arresting figure, oozing charisma so as to shine in relief of the mundane, murky world of Richard and Sharky’s living room (rendered with a keen eye for lived-in grime by scenic designed Charlie Corcoran). But Broderick gives as a satanic wallflower: low volume, low energy, low impact.
Luckily O’Reilly and the rest of his team pick up the slack, allowing McPherson’s script to buzz to life. McPhillamy holds court as the blind master of revels, dishing out dark humor and determined Christmas spirit with grace and charm. One struggles to imagine anybody being able to deliver a line like “We all know you’re an alcoholic and your life is in tatters and you’re an awful fucking gobshite” with more warmth and empathy. The fine balance of Richard’s sweetness against the persistent saltiness of Murray’s Sharky provides just the right tone for McPherson’s world. The lives of both men are in tatters, but Sharky allows his past to haunt him far more than does Richard, as The Seafarer queries the best strategies for reconciling one’s own failings with the demand to carry on with life. Not even a flagging movie start can prevent O’Reilly and his cast from a compelling exploration of those mysteries.
The Seafarer runs to May 24, 2018. More production info can be found here.