Entertainment » Theatre

The Seafarer

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday Nov 25, 2008
Derry Woodhouse (in the background) and Billy Meleady (left); and Larry Coen (right) in "The Seafarer."
Derry Woodhouse (in the background) and Billy Meleady (left); and Larry Coen (right) in "The Seafarer."  

There is invariably an element of the supernatural in the plays of Conor McPherson -- vampires stalk cynical drama critics ("St. Nicholas"); embittered ex's taunt their mates from beyond the grave ("Shining City"), and ghosts haunt a series of tales told in a pub ("The Weir"). It shouldn't be any surprise, then, to find that this element has made its way in The Seafarer, his latest play having its Boston premiere by the SpeakEasy Stage Company after successful runs in London and New York.

But what may seem different to fans of this talented Irish playwright's work is how he's moved from being a fine writer of monologues to one who can craft a fully-realized drama. "Shining City," which the Huntington staged in a fine production last season, gave the first indication that McPherson could write more than effective monologues, with "The Seafarer," his gifts as a playwright are fully realized.

It may also be the strangest Christmas play you'll ever see.

Set on Christmas Eve in a seedy Dublin apartment, it may be called "It's Not Such A Wonderful Life," at least for Sharkey, it's central character. He has left a good-paying job in the South to return home to care for his older brother Richard, blinded in an drunken accident on Halloween. Not that there's much love between the two - Richard is a drunken blowhard who treats his brother with contempt; while Sharkey, an alcoholic now sober, meekly has fallen back a dynamic that no doubt began in childhood. At first Sharkey appears to blend into the background while the play meanders along with Richard and his best friend - the n'eer do well Ivan who has more-or-less moved until he can find his glasses, lost in the drunken reverie of the previous night. The man plan on spending the holiday's eve as they always do - playing cards and getting drunk, and are joined by two more guests: the handsome, if clueless Nicky and the mysterious, nattily dressed Mr. Lockhart.

It's not giving too much away to explain that Lockhart - and here's where the supernatural element comes in - is the Devil who has come to retrieve Sharkey's soul; but being a gambling man, offers him the chance to save himself with a game of cards. No redeeming angel named Clarence in this Christmas fable - only an unsettling man who promises Sharkey a vision of hell that is quite disquieting.

But what makes "The Seafarer" so compelling is McPherson's ability to blend this element into the whole and shift between the comic and the supernatural with deft ease. And the play is funny - these men, whatever their faults, have a gift to gab as they regale each other with stories on their long day's journey to Christmas morning. Some strategically place off-stage events leave Lockhart and Sharkey alone for a number of eerily effective confrontations, enhanced by John Malinowski's superb lighting design. As conceived by McPherson, Lockhart makes for a cruel, unyielding spirit with little sense of fun. He's like some security agent on an undercover mission, coolly playing his hands until he can take home his sought-after prize.

Alcohol is, of course, the balm that soothes the pain in these men's lives, but also proves to be a tie-breaker for Lockhart and Sharkey when both succumb to a special brew that Richard has put away for the holiday. Once inebriated, Sharkey explodes with fury at his lost life that may soon be coming to an end.

Certainly the SpeakEasy is on a role this year with memorable productions of "The History Boys" and "The Light in the Piazza;" and this production, under the assured direction of Carmel O'Reilly, only continues this trend. O'Reilly has a keen understanding of the play's structure, balancing the lighter elements with its themes of retribution and redemption. Like "St. Nicholas" it ends on a surprisingly benign note, despite its terrifying promise. She also understands the importance of bringing together a first-rate ensemble who can create strongly individualized characterizations but meld together intoa seamless whole, which is the case here.

You can sense the rage burning in Billy Meleady's Sharkey from the onset, and his resignation at caring for his blinded brother. While he's upstaged at virtually every turn by the more colorful individuals around him, he centers the play with a palpable melancholy. Derry Woodhouse as his adversary Lockhart is suave and compelling (some of this, though, is like Devils before him he comes with his own creepily effective lighting design). He also is imbued with sadness and an anger that can never be sated. Woodhouse's matinee-idol looks certainly give the character a glamorous veneer, but he also effectively conveys a steely cruelty that befits his supernatural alter-ego.

While the core of the play centers on the pitched battle between these two, the lighter elements are wonderfully realized by the remaining actors. Ciaran Crawford possesses the swagger of a small-time operator -- macho on the outside, but henpecked beneath. Bob Colonna conveys Richard's affability, as well as his considerable mean streak, with great believability in a role that could easily slip into clich? in lesser hands. And to say that Larry Coen's Ivan is a revelation would be to deny his exemplary work in the past; but here he extends his work fine comic outings with the Gold Dust Orphans to create a rich (and very funny) three-dimensional character.

Michael Griggs's set (right down to the most pathetic Christmas tree on record), Rafael Jaen's costumes and, especially, John Malinowski's lighting, add to the believability of this most curious and compelling of holiday dramas. Looking for something different this holiday season? "The Seafarer" is that ticket.

The Seafarer continues through December 13 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass. For ticket information and schedule, visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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