BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Conor McPherson's new play "The Seafarer" is in the rich British tradition of holiday ghost stories, mostly known in our time through endless repetitions of Dickens' best-known spook-fest, "A Christmas Carol." The little frissons of fear are, ironically, intended to make one feel snug around the hearth, and it's not spoiling the fun to reveal that McPherson's tale centers on a friendly card game where the highest stake is the soul of one of the players.
Set in the Irish countryside in a predictably down-at-heels house - you would think from the vast majority of Irish plays seen recently that no one in Eire lives in anything that's not falling down about the residents' ears - on Christmas Eve, Sharky, an alcoholic laborer who's fallen on hard times, has returned home to live with and help Richard, his older brother recently blinded in an accident. Richard and Sharky have a bitter back-and-forth that's often hilarious as Richard connives for more drink and Sharky tries to stay sober.
The brothers are joined by Ivan, a tippling neighbor concerned that his absence from home on Christmas Eve will upset his wife, but making no real effort to leave, and Nicky, a younger, would-be-hipper guy in a relationship with Sharky's ex wife. Nicky brings along Lockhart whom he met in a bar. Lockhart initially appears to be a traveler looking to share a little holiday conviviality, but he soon reveals himself to Sharky as the Devil and he's come to redeem Sharky's promise of his soul in return for having given him a pass on an earlier encounter. The same rules, however, apply - the soul must be won in a game of poker.
That plot point is not as important as the rich story McPherson tells of loss and struggle, family dynamics and the challenges of spiritual and physical survival in hard times. The men have familiar, if dysfunctional relationships - particularly the brothers Sharky and Richard. How they ultimately nearly come to blows but manage to salvage both their relationship and Sharky's life is an engaging tale.
McPherson returns to the supernatural terrain he mined in both "The Weir" and "Shining City" as a way to spin a tale of lost souls and the scars of deep loss. The playwright examines the uneasy search for resolution, which his characters never find. The best they can hope for is a brief respite. But rather than being gloomy, McPherson continues to find deep wells of humanity in the bleakness-and, particularly in "The Seafarer," the laughter leavens the mood and makes for an engaging evening.
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Still, this is an imperfect play. Though not as talky as "The Weir," which was a series of long monologues by patrons in a bar, "The Seafarer" would benefit from some judicious cutting. It's a tough balancing act. On the one hand, there are the intriguing characters whose stories are engaging, but when they go on too long, the tension is lost and the play bogs down.
What never falters are the fine performances of the cast. David Morse as Sharky gives a remarkably fragile and vulnerable performance beneath the veneer of a guy toughing it out. The tenuous nature of his sobriety and his unspoken fear as he enters the final poker hands with Lockhart are riveting.
His energy is wonderfully counterbalanced by the performance of Jim Norton as Richard. Alcoholism informs Norton's performance as well, but in a darker way. His vulnerability is masked by both desperation for drink and a manufactured charm that barely contains his deep-seated anger. Richard vacillates from charm to violence in a way that is unsettling not so much to his friends who are used to it, but to Sharky who is clearly struggling on many levels.
Ciaran Hinds is terrific as Lockhart, informing his own brand of charm with a kind of other worldly evil. Hinds gives the sense that Lockhart is as lost and trapped as the other men, and it's a rich performance.
The rest of the cast does a fine job, particularly Conleth Hill as Ivan and Sean Mahon as Nicky. While their characters exist mostly as foils to the main action, they add to the texture, particularly Nicky whose inherent superficiality is a nice counterpoint to the weightiness of the other characters.
McPherson loves to play tricks on his audience, and the gasp-inducing ending of "Shining City" had overtones of gimmickry. The ending of the "The Seafarer" is less shocking and almost anticlimactic. One is more likely to feel that they've gotten through a long evening and emerged unscathed, but, for the most part, wonderfully entertained.