Even if Conor McPherson weren’t so forthcoming about his past in interviews, his plays would likely be identifiable as those of a lapsed Catholic and former alcoholic, wrestling with personal demons concerning addiction, solitude, self-doubt and the need for emotional and spiritual connections. Though he’s never quite approached those themes in such a rollicking fashion, they nonetheless permeate the Irish playwright’s drunken dance with the devil, “The Seafarer.” Lighter in tone than “The Weir” or “Shining City,” and somewhat less fully realized, this imperfect but beguiling new work is considerably enhanced by McPherson’s expert direction and some uncommonly fine acting.
The beauty of McPherson’s dialogue lies in its hypnotic marriage of melancholy poetry with salty, booze-fueled pub talk. One might anticipate that the strength as a director of anyone who can write like that would be his ability to conjure the right rhythms from his words, conducting his cast to speak his lines exactly as they were written. That certainly feels like the case in this National Theater import, which includes superlative work from two actors who originated their roles in London (Jim Norton and Conleth Hill).
What’s perhaps less expected is the expertise McPherson shows in the physical production, smoothly negotiating Rae Smith’s split-level set — so grimy and dank with age and neglect, it’s almost pungent — to keep the single-setting play lively. He also choreographs seemingly endless variations on inebriation from the actors, whose agile work flirts frequently with slapstick while remaining rooted in realistic behavior.
Action takes place in a dilapidated house in coastal Baldoyle, north of Dublin, in which a Jesus icon with an erratically functioning electrical eternal flame watches over the Harkin brothers’ cheerless living room. It’s the morning of Christmas Eve, and Sharky (David Morse) has recently returned home to care for his crusty older brother, Richard (Norton), who needs only a glass of whisky to keep him happy, despite having been blinded after stumbling into a dumpster on Halloween. Also on hand is Richard’s perpetually plastered drinking buddy, Ivan (Hill).
Despite brooding Sharky’s objections, Richard has organized a night of booze and poker with Nicky (Sean Mahon), a swaggering Eurotrash dude in sunglasses and tasteless Versace jacket who thinks he’s a lot slicker than he is. Nicky brings dapper stranger Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), whose quietly sinister manner clues us in to his true identity. Since it’s revealed so swiftly, it’s hardly a plot spoiler to disclose that Mr. L. is the devil, come to claim the soul Sharky bargained away in a card game 25 years earlier after accidentally killing a man.
McPherson somewhat too transparently vacates the stage at intervals, leaving Sharky and Lockhart to face off alone. The high stakes having been clearly established, it seems only a matter of time and another round or two of drinks before Sharky loses a hand at cards and the visitor escorts the Faustian condemned man through “the hole in the wall.”
But the emotionally bankrupt Sharky’s desire for a fresh start has been revealed in his struggle to stay on the wagon and care for his handful of a brother, and in his evident feelings for a woman he met on an out-of-town job — so it’s not entirely surprising when the play switches from a tale of retribution to one of redemption.
The ease with which that happens in the uneven second act is problematic. Despite Hinds’ enigmatic performance — his first solo confrontation with Sharky instantly darkens the tone several shades — and some refreshingly human twists on the satanic persona, Mr. Lockhart remains more of a device than a satisfyingly integrated character.
However, he does add flavor to the comedy, particularly when a glass too many of some lethal homemade poteen robs him of his poise, or when wincing through a drunken chorus of “Ave Maria.” And though this play has fewer than usual of McPherson’s customary bewitching monologues, Mr. Lockhart gets to expound chillingly on hell, not as the standard fiery pit but as a cold and unrelenting place of shame, self-loathing, anger and panic.
It’s a memorable speech, given an added sting in its tail when Lockhart continues by describing the joys of heaven, his words echoed in an expansive universe suddenly suggested by Neil Austin’s entrancing lighting effects.
While McPherson has been down parallel roads before and has traced his characters’ tentative emergence from painful isolation with more poignancy and lucidity, he remains a gifted spinner of yarns. And there’s much to savor here in the vividly alive character details and fully inhabited performances.
Affecting in his sullen withdrawal and intimidatingly powerful when he flares up in a rage, Morse is a commanding presence, wearing Sharky’s burdens like a heavy cloak. With his nerdy underbite, lolling tongue, greasy combover and head scrunched deep into his slouching shoulders, Hill is equal parts repulsive and endearing as a shameless moocher, content to be everyone’s lackey so long as it keeps the alcohol flowing.
Best of all is Norton. Cantankerous, ever-alert, self-aggrandizing and self-pitying when it serves his needs, Richard is right up there with the great filthy, mischief-making drunks of all time. Watch Norton’s hand as he slyly monitors how far his glass is filled. Those eyes may be blank and unseeing, but they never lose their twinkle.