As he so subtly proved in “The Weir” and “Shining City,” Conor McPherson is theater’s most beguiling poet of devastation. Pain welling up from the past into the present is an overworked and usually heavy-handed theme, but McPherson’s extraordinarily light touch holds not only his characters but his audiences in thrall. His writing has always mined a seam of humor, but his new play pushes through into laugh-out-loud comedy. Yet quite how well this pleasurable new tack is suited to handle McPherson’s perennial themes — alcoholism, despair, regret and redemption — is debatable.
On a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, as ripe a bunch of shiftless types as one could ever imagine meeting are gathered by the stove playing hand after hand of poker. At the top of the second act, Richard Harkin (Jim Norton), the oldest and feistiest, drunkenly leads his friends in a hilariously rousing chorus of an old familiar song. “I believe above the storm the smallest prayer, will still be heard/I believe that someone in the great somewhere, hears every word…” Quite what he believes in is anyone’s guess, but spirits certainly come into it, and not just of the liquid variety.
McPherson’s reputation rests in part on his exhumation of the forgotten genre of the ghost story, and his latest tale of damnation and hope gives a firm twist to the notion of spiritual possession. The beadiest of the men eyeing each other’s cards and bets is actually a stranger. In his smart, three-piece suit and slicked hair, the punctilious but mysterious Mr. Lockhart (the quietly malevolent Ron Cook) is, in fact, the devil.
The only one who knows this is the hapless Sharky (Karl Johnson), brother of the cantankerous Richard, who is so addicted to alcohol that he fell into a skip and accidentally blinded himself. As a wreck of man who has, by default, become his elderly brother’s keeper in a filthy, rundown house in North Dublin, Johnson makes himself look almost hollowed out with exhaustion. Attempting to stay on the wagon, he stands by looking alternately dismissive and vengeful as Richard cries, “He claims to look after me but he’s an awful fuckin’ eejit.”
“Faust” has been funny before — look at “Damn Yankees” — but the crucial difference is that in this comic gamble, matters are more morally complicated. Moreover, McPherson abandons the usual devil-drama structure so we don’t witness the temptation. Instead, we simply discover that Lockhart has returned to claim the soul he bought 25 years ago, when he let Sharky off the hook for an accidental death. And the setup for the second act? The devil determines to win at cards and take Sharky away.
McPherson is meticulous in guiding his actors. The ensemble playing is glorious; nothing is generalized. The cast doesn’t so much act the script’s minutely detailed observation as spotlight every moment to delicious effect.
Conleth Hill is priceless as good-hearted, hopeless Ivan. Playing a sweet dope of a man who cannot remember where he left his glasses or his car, Hill whips laughter out of everything from slipping drunkenly down the stairs to pouring tea onto the carpet so he can fill his mug with yet another illicit whiskey.
He’s matched by Norton’s ribald turn as Richard, a man who cannot resist grandstanding every moment of his days. Michael McElhatton is winning as the too-shiny Nicky, a man who thinks bigger than he can manage.
That, however, is a charge that could be laid at McPherson’s door. The playwright builds a sensational twist into the second act but, although it works to underline his message of hope, it considerably weakens the play, which suddenly reveals itself to be a thriller entirely subservient to a narrative device.
The revelation calls into question all sorts of preceding elements of structure and theme. Verbal duels between Sharky and Lockhart are beautifully written, but in order for them to be heard, McPherson has to clear the stage. His means of getting the other characters off — exiting twice to deal with an unconvincing gang of winos we never see — is too contrived.
More crucially, although we know Sharky’s past action has blighted his life, the moment is neither examined nor explored dramatically. As a result, his defining final moment of sunlit reconciliation feels like emotion that’s grafted on rather than earned.
McPherson’s unfashionable and cherishable gifts for warmth and compassion carry his characters and auds through, but for the first time, one of his plays is open to the charge of sentimentality.