AISLE SAY New York
Written and Directed by Conor
Starring Conleth Hill, Ciaran Hands, Sean Mahon,
David Morse and Jim Norton
Booth Theatre / 222 West 45th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer
I have the most furiously mixed feelings about the newest import by Irish dramatist Conor MacPherson (by way of an acclaimed production of England's Royal National Theatre), which is odd, considering that The Seafarer never purports to be profound, important or even particularly provocative.
Problem is, I can't really tell you why my feelings are so mixed without providing what may be a major spoiler. So if you're wondering whether or not to visit The Seafarer, you may need to stop reading my review here and survey others elsewhere, only because my answer is no simpler than my conflicted reaction.
But if you don't mind learning of a halfway point reveal—not a denouement type of reveal, nor even a plot reversal that ruins a major surprise, just the introduction of an element not previously alluded to, that casts everything before and after into a slightly different light—read on. Knowing it shouldn't compromise your enjoyment of the play very much at all—but be alerted, if you'd rather come to the small surprise fresh.
Okay, fair warning's given. Moving on...
The play takes place in a coastal settlement north of Dublin City, in an old house whose main living area could almost be taken for the anteroom of a pub, lived in by Sharky (David Morse) and his older brother Richard (Jim Norton). Sharky is keeping things steady, having led a tough life and recently sworn off the alcoholic cycle that has caused so much of it; and Richard's a boozy prattler who fancies himself a sage, but he's indulged as he recently went blind in an accident. It's Christmas eve day and Sharky is preparing for a small gathering of poker playing friends, that will include the comic, bespectacled Ivan (Conleth Hill) and everybody's well-meaning sidekick Nicky (Sean Mahon).
On this particular Xmas ED though, Nicky has brought along a companion who attached himself at a local pub. He seems agreeable enough, yet he has a dark disposition. And of the five, he's the only one not addressed by his first name. He's only Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hands). And this game of poker is very important to him, especially the opportunity to play against Sharky, because—
(Those of you still reading, the spoiler is coming right here. Last warning.)
—many years ago, after losing a hand of poker to Sharky, Lockhart got Sharky out of a jam, a terrible jam, and though Sharky barely remembers the details (he was drinking then) and remembers Lockhart not at all (which may not be surprising, as there's an implication that he may have looked very different then), it seems that, in exchange, Sharky promised Lockhart the opportunity to play him again—25 years later. Not for money.
Because, of course, Mr. Lockhart is really Old Scratch: the Devil. And this Christmas Eve night, Sharky will be playing for his immortal soul.
The Seafarer is not the playwright's first flirtation with the supernatural and things that go bump in the night. Seen in the US at least there have been St. Nicholas and The Weir, the first a monologue about a drama critic getting caught up with vampires; the second the trading of monologues among pub crawlers about inexplicable ghostie things that have happened to them in their pasts.
Yet all the acclaim heaped upon these works (and I hasten to add, I was rather partial to St. Nicholas; The Weir not so much) surprises me, because Mr. McPherson doesn't have a particularly original approach to The Things That Go Bump in the Night...in fact, the incarnations he evokes are quaint: campfire stories from another, far less graphic, far less hip era. Perhaps these evocations are meant to draw upon the echoes of folk history, rather than compete with the new age renovations of Stephen King, Joss Whedon, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, Sam Raimi and the like—but to me they are simply retreads of schemata that had their last burst of real freshness half a century ago when they were featured in the original Twilight Zone.
It is also really odd that Sharky's haunted past, and the appearance of Mr. Lockhart, are elements that come very late in Act One. Nothing truly prepares you for the introduction of Otherworldly Forces...until then, The Seafarer is a comedy drama, one that seems (deceptively) agreeably aimless, about these two brothers and their mates. There's no established "permission" for it (yet, curiously, not long after Lockhart's entrance, I was onto his "secret identity," don't ask me how. But I knew the rules had shifted.)
One might well describe The Seafarer, in fact, as a leisurely classic Twilight Zone episode; to the point where the references to modern conveniences like CDs and cell phones seem like anachronistic intrusion.
I don't know if this is good or bad, but I'll tell you this much: none of the familiar tropes, none of what would seem to be violations of dramatic structure, none of the tone-shifting seem to bother the audience a whit. The night I was there, as I expect will happen for all the performances remaining in the run, the audience loved the ass (or should I say the arse) off this thing.
They can hardly be blamed. As both writer and director, McPherson has made the brothers and their pals loveable. Flawed, frustrating, a little dim maybe, but essentially good-hearted blokes getting through life as best they can. (i.e. For one who has gone blind in his 60s—the age is never stated, but in the casting of Jim Norton the age is clearly that—Richard seems remarkably free of self-pity. He's a trial and demanding, to be sure, but there's such pride and glee in him that you can't help but approve his resilience. Likewise his younger brother's long-suffering yet inexhaustible tolerance. And who better to put that across than the benignly brooding David Morse.)
And the Devil as a dapper outsider—well, if it's an overworked archetype it may be because audiences love their Devils formidable. And Ciaran Hands gives this one a quiet, dark menace. Also definite chinks in the armor. The text of the play has him saying merely that he doesn't much like music; but when it is played, Mr. Hands seems to feel the torture of a million nails scraped against a giant blackboard, and slowly closes in on himself like a slug being sprinkled lightly but relentlessly with salt.
One also has to appreciate McPherson's language, in soliloquy mode. I won't spoil it for you here, but there is probably no description of hell in the literature that contains more quiet, claustrophobic, hopeless terror than the one Lockhart shares with Sharky.
Plus: 'tis the season, you know. And when you think on't, The Seafarer is a worthy, new Christmas story. Yes, there is redemption at the end. But it comes unexpectedly. The story leads you to believe that the conclusion can be only A or B. But it is, I'll give him this, an ingenious C.
Maybe the attraction of this play isn't so elusive and hard to pin down after all. There's a British TV writer-producer I've referred to on occasion, Russell T Davies, the author of many distinguished and controversial works. Yet when he was given the chance to renovate and show-run the new millennium incarnation of Doctor Who, he embraced it as his dream job...and has thus caused much of the world to embrace the good Time Lord anew, with more fervent enthusiasm than ever -- not just children, but adults, going back to the adults who first encountered the Doctor in 1963. What's the magic here? Offhand I think it's that primal need to embrace certain myths that go deep and seem to permeate every culture. The Doctor personifies one essential myth, that of the paternal yet romantic hero, eternal and lonely, but driven to redress injustice and imbalance.
And it would seem that somehow, in some way, Mr. McPherson has tapped into another: the notion that, despite the challenges of survival, we have it in us to look the Devil in the eye and keep fighting...