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The Seafarer

Conor McPherson's new play about a life-or-death poker game is one of his most entertaining and conventional works. logo
David Morse and Ciaran Hinds
in The Seafarer
(© Joan Marcus)
Oddly enough for a play that revolves around a life-or-death poker game, Conor McPherson puts his cards on the table awfully early in The Seafarer, revealing the true identity of the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds) about 45 minutes into this 2 ½-hour long work. This meant-to-be-shocking revelation instantly shifts the tone of the work, which has played out as a kind of quasi-Irish sitcom. And it causes McPherson (who also directed) and his extraordinary five-person ensemble to engage in a delicate balancing act between comedy and tragedy.

Unfortunately, the play -- which debuted at London's National Theater -- rambles on a bit too long in act two and doesn't deliver quite enough of a payoff. Nonetheless, The Seafarer is one of the author's most entertaining works -- and without question, his most conventional one. Gone are the practically chapter-long monologues that are the hallmark of previous McPherson plays such as The Weir; in fact, no one here speaks for more than a single paragraph.

The back-and-forth dialogue is not only refreshing, but expertly done, sharply delineating the relationships between Sharky (David Morse), a perpetually down-on-his-luck jack of many trades; his older brother and fellow alcoholic, Richard (Jim Norton), recently blinded in a freak accident, Ivan (Conleth Hill), their rather doltish, equally hard-drinking friend, and Nicky (Sean Mahon), who's now living with Sharky's wife, Eileen. It's Nicky who brings Lockhart, a well-dressed stranger he met in a local bar, to Sharky and Richard's slightly disheveled house for a Christmas Eve game of cards. No one seems to ask Lockhart -- who never reveals his first name -- much about his background; but once he and Sharky are left alone for a minute, he reminds him of their previous meeting and the reason for his not-accidental visit.

Like much of McPherson's work, The Seafarer is ultimately concerned with the idea of redemption. Sharky, who's on his second day of sobriety as the play begins, has a past filled with mistakes, both large and small -- which may be why he exhibits a certain ambivalence about the necessity of a future. But once refueled with alcohol, Sharky acquires at least a momentary determination to go on living, even if there's no explicit promise of brighter days ahead. The always brilliant Morse -- too long absent from the New York stage -- imbues Sharky with a gravity, not to mention an awkward grace, that immediately causes the audience to empathize with his character. Yet, neither Morse nor McPherson shy away from Sharky's less-admirable qualities.

If Morse centers the play, Norton gives its most expansive and sly performance. It's the kind of crowd-pleasing yet innately truthful work that earns shelves of awards. Indeed, he won the coveted Olivier Award for his work in the show's London production, and I will be far from surprised to see him ascend the steps of Radio City next June. Richard's rage and resentment lie just beneath the surface of a falsely cheery exterior, and when they erupt, it's truly frightening. Hill, the show's other holdover cast member from the National Theater, is an incredibly accomplished physical comedian and earns more than his share of the play's laughs. Hinds oozes the proper mixture of charm and malevolence as Lockhart, and Mahon holds his own against these powerhouses, deftly capturing Nicky's fecklessness.

McPherson is celebrated for his facility with twist endings, and he's come up with one here that's more comic than his usual modus operandi. Yet, as the curtain descends on The Seafarer, one can't totally shake the feeling that we've watched a lengthy parlor trick -- albeit a superbly performed one ---rather than the kind of profound play the author may have intended.

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