'The Seafarer'

Conor McPherson's contemporary folk fable falls short of optimum hilarity.

If a lapsed Irish Catholic scribe, waking from a roaring drunk to a TV rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” were to mutter, “Up yours George Bailey” and dip his pen in purest bile, what would come out would surely resemble “The Seafarer.” Conor McPherson’s Christmas Eve-set contemporary folk fable — well received in both London and Gotham — falls short of optimum hilarity, poignancy or chills in Randall Arney’s Geffen production. But the setup, sparkling writing and two subtly etched performances are worth recommending.

His nickname might suggest a sharp operator, but Sharky Harkin (Andrew Connolly) could never be mistaken for the luckiest man in town. An ex-con with a history of personal and professional screw-ups, he’s practically paralyzed with guilt and defeat.

Having ankled his latest chauffeur gig — got too close to the Mrs., he did — Sharky has returned to the basement squalor of the Harkin North Dublin manse, rendered in perfect squat-ugliness by designer Takeshi Kata; even the Christmas tree seems to have given up. Now his lot is to wait hand and foot on brother Richard (John Mahoney in highest dudgeon, which is a lot), whose recent blinding in a Halloween trash bin accident has not improved his disposition.

In restricting Sharky to Daniel Ionazzi’s deep upstage shadows, Arney risks losing sight of his protagonist amid the flashier hail-fellows who show up to celebrate the holiday: Ivan (a peerlessly funny Paul Vincent O’Connor), a bleary sod who loses track of his glasses, car and family obligations; Nicky (Matt Roth), the blowhard now with Sharky’s ex, Eileen; and Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin), the suave stranger who’s been bankrolling Nicky’s pub crawl.

But the helmer’s gamble pays off. So concentrated is Connolly, and so calculatedly spare in his movement and gesture, that Sharky becomes a watched pot we hope will boil over, or at least take the semblance of a stand for his own self-respect.

But this is Irish melodrama, where hell on earth can only be followed by another one in the afterlife. George Bailey has angel Clarence to turn his life around, but here in Dublin, it’s Mr. Scratch who’s about to perform an ominous Christmas miracle.

Lockhart, it’s no spoiler to reveal, is Old Nick, circling the globe (no doubt counterclockwise to Saint Nick) every Dec. 24 to play cards for the souls of those who made long-forgotten pacts with the Devil for temporary succor. Call it the Under-World Poker Tour. Now it’s Sharky’s turn to ante up, and the stage is set for a confrontation promising to sizzle figuratively and literally.

This doesn’t quite happen, as the ensemble never completely jells in personality or dialect. Mahoney’s incessant braying and cackling aren’t accompanied by enough booze-inspired wheedling highs, or self-pitying lows, to relieve the increasing monotony in his playing.

Irwin brings a radio announcer’s stentorian tones but not much presence to fuel Lockhart’s menace, and his and Mahoney’s accents keep jumping back and forth across the Atlantic. Roth’s brogue is more consistent, but thesp never precisely establishes how his relationship with Sharky is affected by the Eileen situation, so that part of the story fizzles out.

O’Connor, however, is as hilariously still as Connolly is broodingly still, and while the other thesps’ energy is diffuse, these two become more fascinating as the evening progresses and suspense mounts.

And whenever the action hits a lull, the words can be depended upon to perk things up. Having made his bones with sensuous monologue plays like “This Lime Tree Bower,” McPherson proves skillful at the kind of whiskey-soaked blather we associate with “Juno and the Paycock” while still finding room for a luxurious aria or two, notably Lockhart’s spellbinding vision of heaven and hell. Designed to turn the screws on Sharky one last time, it just may have that effect on the spectator as well.

The Seafarer

Geffen Playhouse; 522 seats;$79 top

Production

A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Conor McPherson. Directed by Randall Arney.

Creative

Sets, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; sound, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, James T. McDermott. Opened, reviewed April 22, 2009. Runs through May 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

James "Sharky" Harkin - Andrew Connolly Richard Harkin - John Mahoney Ivan Curry - Paul Vincent O'Connor Nicky Giblin - Matt Roth Mr. Lockhart - Tom Irwin

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