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An Explosive Ferryman Makes Its Broadway Debut

Sam Mendes directs Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, a goose, a real baby, and two dozen others in a new drama by Jez Butterworth.

Paddy Considine (standing) stars in The Ferryman, a new play by Jez Butterworth.
(© Joan Marcus)

Words like "epic" and "sprawling" are frequently used to describe plays like Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, a nearly three-and-a-half hour drama overflowing with characters, plot, and symbolism. Arriving at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a smashing West End run, Butterworth's play is certainly epic — there are 24 characters, including a six-month-old baby, plus a live goose and a rabbit — and obviously sprawling, hypnotizing us over the course of three acts. But those words really only skim the surface of this undeniably thrilling theatrical experience, so here are some better ones: "compelling," "heartbreaking," and just "bloody good."

Set in a farmhouse in Northern Ireland circa 1981, The Ferryman begins with the reemergence of Seamus Carney, who disappeared 10 years earlier, perhaps at the hands of the Irish Republican Army. All that's left of Seamus now is his lifeless body, found floating in a bog, nearly preserved, and with a bullet through his skull. While this provides some element of closure for his extended family, including brother Quinn (Paddy Considine), a reformed IRA activist who has since become a farmer, and widow Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), who moved into Quinn's home with their son, Oisin (Rob Malone), shortly after Seamus's disappearance, the case is all but closed.

As the Carney clan — which extends to Quinn's wife, Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly), their seven children, two elderly aunts and an uncle, three nephews, and the Gumpian Englishman next door (Justin Edwards, tearing our hearts out) — gets ready to celebrate the yearly harvest, in walks Muldoon (Stuart Graham, a startling example of finding menace in stillness), an IRA leader with an ultimatum that reignites flames that have long been smoldering.

Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O'Reilly, and Paddy Considine star in the Broadway production of The Ferryman.
(© Joan Marcus)

This is a pressure cooker of a play. Cunningly directed by Sam Mendes as a thriller disguised as a melodrama, The Ferryman creates an uncommonly specific world in staggering detail. Scenic designer Rob Howell builds a rural farmhouse so teeming with hominess that it could have been picked up intact from County Armagh, where the play is set, while his costumes ably spell out each character's function. Muldoon's leather jacket, for example, lets us know he's trouble from the get-go.

In Peter Mumford's stunning lighting effects, a long foggy night disappears as bright daylight seeps in through the cracks, which gives way to the pinks, blues, and oranges of a beautiful sunset. It's almost as if we can see the fire in the sky ourselves. Sound designer Nick Powell italicizes urgent moments with ominous rumbling. He, Butterworth, and Mendes lull us into a false sense of security, and The Ferryman truly startles on the multiple occasions when they pull out the rug.

Most impressively, Butterworth has created a whopping 21 dialogue roles, and not one person on that stage is left shortchanged. Every single performance is distinct and brimming with personality, from Fionnula Flanagan's ancient, dementia-afflicted Aunt Maggie Far Away, who, despite being lost in a daze while confined to a wheelchair for most of the show, almost supernaturally appears and disappears with a small shift in body language, to 10-year-old Matilda Lawler's mischievous Honor Carney, whose line delivery is absolutely hilarious. Even the baby, who never cries, and the goose, who never honks, make distinct impressions.

Best of all are the two slow-boiling performances at the center. Considine, a film actor who made his stage debut in the London production, is seriously enthralling as a man who desperately tried to leave his past behind, only to come to the grim realization that nothing ever fully disappears. Donnelly displays an astonishing level of quietly bottled-up rage and intensity as Caitlin, ready to blow at any second. Together, they dance an intimate pas de deux of entangled regrets and might-have-beens that yearn to be unleashed.

It's undeniable how enthralling The Ferryman is, and a second viewing only reinforces its thematic richness. No matter what adjectives or verbs you use to describe it, only one sentence really suffices: The Ferryman is the best play running on Broadway.

Justin Edwards and Peggy the Goose (center) in a scene from The Ferryman.
(© Joan Marcus)