By Donna Herman
Do not expect a tale of marine life from Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. The only thing the characters in this play are swimming in is alcohol. Oceans of it. Mixed with self-loathing, shame, regret and despair. It wouldn’t seem to be a fertile field for comedy, but The Seafarer delivers plenty of lighter moments and has been called McPherson’s funniest play.
On the surface of it, The Seafarer is the tale of two brothers in a depressed coastal suburb of Dublin called Baldoyle. Sharky (Andy Murray), in his 50’s, has come home to take care of his older brother Richard (Colin McPhillamy), who was blinded in a drunken accident a few months ago. The play is set in the incredibly dingy, mismatched living room of the family house that resembles a bar without a barmaid. There are bottles, cans and glasses everywhere, chairs upended, and overflowing ashtrays.
It is Christmas Eve morning after a night of heavy drinking by Richard and his friend Ivan (Michael Mellamphy). Sharky has been sober for two whole days and is hanging on by a thread. He’s got a reputation for being wild and unmanageable when drunk, and then suddenly meek. He’s got band-aids on the bridge of his nose and his knuckles and it’s revealed by Ivan, who heard it from Nicky (Tim Ruddy), that he instigated a big brawl with a gang of young thugs outside a pub the night he got home. Richard and Sharky snipe at each other constantly, swearing and cursing. But in the end, Sharky will always do as Richard asks.
McPherson uses a naturalistic style in the first scene, with his authentic and colloquial dialogue and hyper-realistic set. But at the end of the first act, it’s clear we have moved into the realm of magical realism. Nicky , an old friend who is now dating Sharky’s ex-girlfriend, drops by with a Mr. Lockhart (Matthew Broderick) in tow, for a bit of Christmas cheer. Mr. Lockhart, a dapper man in a suit is someone Nicky has been bar-hopping with all day. Both Sharky and Ivan seem to think he looks familiar but can’t place him. He is neat and presentable in sharp contrast to Richard, Sharky and Ivan. He speaks in a more educated accent than the others as well. Although he seems more refined than his companions, he is willing to play cards and drink with the boys.
When Richard, Ivan and Nicky run out to chase winos off the back steps, Mr. Lockhart reminds Sharky that they’ve met before. Sharky doesn’t remember at first – it was 25 years ago – but the horrifying recollection is brought home to him all too clearly. He has made a Faustian deal with The Devil who has come to collect on it.
Matthew Broderick is an unexpected, but brilliant bit of casting for the role of The Devil. It’s hard not to think of him as a fresh-faced teenager in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, or a nebbishy accountant in “The Producers.” Which makes his unveiling as Satan all the more startling. And his Devil is a quiet, unprepossessing man until he gets angry. At one point, Sharky refuses him a drink when the others are out of the room, and he shouts for the first and only time “Oy, oy, oy, oy.” I nearly jumped out of my seat. And his description of hell as the coldest coffin in which you could never fall asleep, and which you would be in for eternity, was truly terrifying.
The entire cast worked together like an ensemble that has been together for years. Andy Murray was perfect as the tightly wound, glowering and monosyllabic Sharky. Colin McPhillamy gave us an unflinching yet heartbreaking performance as the mercurial, and eloquent Richard. McPherson describes him as being able to “lurch from sentimentality to vicious insults within seconds,” and McPhillamy navigated the about-faces convincingly. Michael Mellamphy’s hapless Ivan is the source of most of the comic turns in The Seafarer, as he stumbles around blinded by the loss of his glasses, the amount of alcohol he has consumed, and his own lack of insight. The director Ciarán O’Reilly keeps the pace moving and the tension building until the surprise ending brings a Christmas miracle.
The Seafarer, like its namesake Old English poem quoted at the beginning of the play, begins with an earthly recounting of struggle and hardship and ends with a foray into redemption and the mystical. And who better than an Irishman to follow that path?
The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly.
WITH: Andy Murray (James ‘Sharky’ Harkin); Colin McPhillamy (Richard Harkin); Michael Mellamphy (Ivan Curry); Tim Ruddy (Nicky Giblin); Matthew Broderick (Mr. Lockhart).
Scenic Design by Charlie Corcoran; Costume Design by Martha Hally; Lighting Design by Brian Nason; Sound Design by Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab; Original Music by Ryan Rumery; Properties by Deirdre Brennan; Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis; Fight Director, Rick Sordelet; Casting by Deborah Brown; Production Stage Manager, Jeff Davolt; Ass’t State Manager, Kate Mandracchia; Press Representative, Matt Ross Public Relations; General Manager, Lisa Fane. Presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre, Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director; Ciarán O’Reilly, Producing Director. Performances through May 24th at The Irish Repertory Theatre Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, NYC. For tickets call: 212-727-2737; or visit: www.irishrep.org.