There is a legacy of Irish dramatic literature that does not 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 McPherson’s "The Seafarer," a veritable convergence of drunks of a feather, the playwright 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 supports 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 50s, 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 has 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 armchair 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, which 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 Sharky and Ivan have in the past caused the death of people when under the influence, and that Nicky is now living with Sharkey’s girlfriend, add some moral gravity to the plot. There is also an opportunity for characters to redeem themselves, although it comes as an oversimplified 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 who had waited patiently for more than a winning hand at poker. HH
"The Seafarer," Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. $78.50 to $98.50. www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.