Sunday, February 17, 2008

Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer"

Went to see "The Seafarer" yesterday at the Booth Theater, a play written and directed by Conor McPherson. The Booth has an understated classiness, with its intimate size, oak-panelled walls, and an unusual middle aisle that runs from the back to about the middle of the orchestra seats. It reminded me of a ship cabin, a setting well suited to the play which takes place in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin city. According to the program notes, from this coast one can see Howth Head (Binn Eadair), a hill on the Howth peninsula which marks the northern arm of Dublin Bay. Howth Head attracts to itself many myths and legends.

"The Seafarer" is a Christmas fable. James 'Sharky' Harkin (played by David Morse) is a man who played a game of poker with the Devil, and the Devil has returned to win his soul in another game of poker. All the dramatic conflict pivots on this game which begins only in Act Two and lasts throughout that Act. As such, Act One feels like one long, long set-up for the second act.

The play also does not quite solve the problem of this genre: how to make Everyman, caught between the Devil and God, more than a mere cosmic pawn, more like a real person. I did not feel anything for Sharky, not when we learn, from others' reports, his ex-wife has taken up with a friend, the good-looking Nicky, his present feelings for the wife of his boss, his drunken beating to death of a wino, his tender care for his cantankerous older brother Richard. Morse's acting did not help the writing. When the high stakes game turned, unexpectedly, to his favor, the ending struck me not as cathartic or uplifting, but sentimental.

The real achievement of the play lies in the creation of the character of Richard. The writing here is wonderfully alive, and Jim Norton's acting brought out every nuance in it. Richard is the Christ-like figure in this drama of salvation, but this Savior is dictatorial, drunken, blind, bullying, posturing, funny, and helpless. Unlike Milton's Satan, the Devil here (played by Ciaran Hinds) is merely and mostly self-pitying, and Richard's parting shot when the Devil leaves is right on the money: God, what a maudlin fellow! Richard is too knowing to be maudin, and this knowingness makes him entirely believable, despite his assigned role of God in the symbolic drama. The play is worth seeing just for Norton's performance, but you also get Conleth Hill who played Ivan Curry, a friend of the Harkins. Hill made sincere drunkenness emotionally and physically convincing.

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