The Irish are, arguably, the best storytellers in the world, in no small part due to the music of their speech and their ancient Celtic folklore. One of the best purveyors of this Irish gift is Conor McPherson, a 36-year-old playwright who now has his third Broadway triumph.
In his first, "The Weir," a sorry lot of barroom regulars take turns telling the scariest ghost stories they can think of. Last year's Tony-nominated, "Shining City," told of a troubled psychotherapist and a patient who claimed he was being stalked by his dead wife's ghost. Now, McPherson brings us another eerie play, "The Seafarer," and it's his best yet.
Inspired by tales of Dublin's satanic Hellfire Club, steeped in myth and Christianity, McPherson gives us his own disturbing version of deals people make with the devil when they're desperate. We've all made deals at one point or another in our lives when we've gotten in trouble, but usually they've been with a god we know. Rarely, if ever, do we make our deals with the devil because, well, that's just too scary, even for non-believers. But what if we get the two confused at a critical moment -- and then spend the next, say, 25 years looking over our shoulder wondering when we'll have to pay up?
Such is the crux of "The Seafarer," a comic-drama peopled with a bunch of ne'er-do-wells who do nothing with their barren lives but cuss, drink and play poker. Set in an isolated coastal town in Northern Ireland on the morning of Christmas Eve, a stranger dressed in a camel-hair overcoat and an expensive custom made suit, comes a-calling to collect on that 25-year-old debt.
The debtor is Sharky, a man of few words who has unexpectedly returned home to look after his blind and chronically drunk, older brother, Richard. Sharky's a man of few words, and his reticence marks him as a man of many secrets. Though he professes to have returned because of employment problems, as well as concern for his brother, it's more likely he ran out of places to hide.
On this day before Christmas, there are plenty of chores to do, particularly cleaning up after Richard. Though the man exudes the legendary Irish charm and wit, his personal habits leave a lot to be desired -- he throws up, soils himself, and refuses to bathe. He tries the patience of not only Sharky, but Richardï¿½s old pals, Ivan and Nicky, two other first-class disheveled drunks down on their luck. The physical comedy of these friends as they argue over who'll flush the toilet is both shocking and hilarious, but when the brooding Sharky is left alone with the stranger, things turn serious and we get to the heart of the matter.
In a monologue that'll creep you out and creep into our souls, the stranger, calling himself Mr. Lockhart but admitting to being the devil, asks those questions about eternity we dare not ask. Ciaran Hinds, in this pivotal role, delivers the epitome of hellfire and damnation, and it's only when the rest of the guys return that things turn funny again, except this time the humor is tinged with a lingering chill.
Sitting down to poker, with Mr. Lockhart joining in, the men place their bets, and as the stakes grow higher, the friendly game turns into a tense gamble of life or death. Jim Norton, as Richard, steals the show, a shoe-in for a Tony nomination, while Conleth Hill recreates his role as the near-sighted Ivan, and his handling of the play's critical moment is a delicious treat.
The play is brilliant and McPherson, as both writer and director, has given us plenty to ponder. If a good musical leaves you with a song in your head, a good play leaves you with characters that stay in your heart. "The Seafarer" is such a play, and it takes you on a journey that offers no transfers or returns.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Gorgeous, vitally intelligent performances." & "Directed by Mr. McPherson, one of the finest ensembles to grace a Broadway stage in years uncovers the soul-defining clarity within the drunkardï¿½s haze. Alcohol may be a great leveler, but as these men confirm with spectacular style, it is also a great individualizer."
New York Times
"Seafarer" has its faults. The first half is slow and mostly exposition. McPherson, who also directs, uses a contrived device, twice, so Sharky and Lockhart can talk one-on-one. But the superlative acting balances things out. Together, the five actors form a winning hand." & "It would be a sin to reveal Sharky's fate. Suffice it to say that the play's divine final image goes down as smooth as a fine single malt."
New York Daily News
"The writing is standard issue Irish-playwright whiskey-sodden banter - very good of its quick interweaving, miasmic kind - and the characters are odd enough to be diverting company for a couple of hours." & "McPherson's staging goes at a nicely galloping pace, and the acting throughout is excellent." & "the play never lives up to the expectation of its premise. It doesn't, in the end, even surprise."
New York Post
"Dominated by the kind of showy acting, often about the Irish and iconically sloshed in alcohol, which either cracks you up or does not."
"Beautifully acted supernatural drama.., it's a suspenseful tale for the holiday season. & "A well-meshed ensemble acts like blue blazes to ignite the storyline's long fuse." & "Packs more than a few chills."
"One of the flaws of the production is that Morse is miscast. He's too together, too composed, for a man who's hit bottom and is trying desperately to regain the thread of his life. He never shows us enough of what's inside Sharky to make us care about his fate. The first act is slow and a bit repetitive, but McPherson embeds us in rich detail and atmosphere." & A dramatic comedy, but only the second word of the description really connects in this production."
"Conor McPherson splits the difference between these two stylistic extremes ï¿½ scouring existentialism and goofball humor ï¿½ in his fitfully profound "The Seafarer." & "Mr. McPherson sees to it that each actor gets his laughs and/or shudders, but often at the expense of cohesion." & "Satisfying if slightly gimmicky conclusion."
New York Sun
Like many a country-and-western ballad, ``The Seafarer'' is engaging. The payoff may lack transcendence, but the journey has been entertaining nonetheless. Cliches, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde on sentimental music, have their power
"Haunting yet often hilarious tale of a memorable Christmas Eve poker night in a dingy Dublin suburb. The play...is filled with talk - colourful, spirited language that is seized with gusto by an excellent five-person cast "
"This imperfect but beguiling new wortk is considerably enhanced by McPherson's expert direction and some uncommonly fine acting." & "here's much to savor here in the vividly alive character details and fully inhabited performances.