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Matthew Broderick Raises Hell in The Seafarer

Conor McPherson's Tony-nominated drama receives its first New York revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Matthew Broderick and Andy Murray in the Irish Repertory Theatre production of The Seafarer.
(© Carol Rosegg)

The original Broadway production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer in 2007 is pretty hard to top. There were a slew of vivid performances — most crucially, a star-making, Tony-winning turn from Jim Norton as a blind boozer — and McPherson's nuanced staging expertly captured the piece's swift shifts in tone. At times a dark comedy, occasionally a contemplative drama, and couched as a morality tale, The Seafarer is a difficult play to get right, and the Broadway production did.

Fortunately, Irish Repertory Theatre's first major revival of The Seafarer, nigh-perfectly directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, proves its durability as part of the canon.

Big things are happening in a small Dublin basement where a group of lost souls are playing a Christmas Eve poker game with Satan himself. The bleak apartment — designed by Charlie Corcoran with such an eye for detail that you can practically smell the rotting garbage — belongs to Richard Harkin (Colin McPhillamy), newly blind and being looked after by his aimless, loser brother, Sharky (Andy Murray). Their house is frequented by two fellow alcoholics: Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), who uses the Harkin home as a crash pad during arguments with his wife, and Nicky (Tim Ruddy), who's lately been dating Sharky's ex.

Nicky enters with a special guest for their annual card game this year: the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Matthew Broderick). Lockhart, well dressed and far above the station of his new friends, has one eye on his cards and another on Sharky. It's not until Richard, Ivan, and Nicky leave to chase the local winos out of their driveway that Lockhart's true intentions are revealed…and how Sharky has a lot more riding on his hand than euros.

Matthew Broderick as Mr. Lockhart in the Irish Repertory Theatre production of The Seafarer.
(© Carol Rosegg)

With his aloof grin and reedy voice, Broderick, who last appeared at the Irish Rep in McPherson's Shining City, is not a natural choice for such a devilish part, especially when compared to his predecessor, the hulking, naturally scary Ciarán Hinds. While Broderick is neither of those things, he is an intelligent comedic actor who finds the piquant humor in the role. He expertly charts the physical effects of one long, boozy night, and appropriately raises hell exactly when he needs to. The fiery lighting by Brian Nason, with Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab providing rumbling sound effects, only adds to the makeshift hellscape.

Broderick also brings a quality of bleak introspection to the role, which nicely captures McPherson's overall thesis: that the real hell is not the fire and brimstone that we all imagine, but simply being alone and hating yourself. It's a characteristic that Murray quite nicely echoes in his turn as Sharky, as the character's feelings evolve from complete self-loathing to thorough comfort in his current situation. Mellamphy and Ruddy are extremely funny as Richard's self-sabotaging cronies, with McPhillamy delivering evening's most multifaceted performance as Richard. As if his stained pullover sweater (Martha Hally's costumes are all spot-on) wasn't enough to define his character, McPhillamy finds both the black humor and sharp edge in McPherson's writing, turning Richard into a larger-than-life Ignatius J. Reilly-style bully whom it's impossible to say no to.

Unlike many of McPherson's other plays, The Seafarer concludes on an up note, one that leaves the characters thinking that anything is possible. This production makes audiences feel the same way.

A scene from Conor McPherson's The Seafarer at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)