HOUSEBOUND SAILORS CAST ADRIFT ON THE SEAS OF BOOZE
by Harvey Perr
published December 7, 2007
now playing on Broadway at the Booth Theater
When a bunch of drunken Irishmen start talking about seeing ghosts, it’s not just the drink that’s talking (or so any Irishman
will tell you). And if you’ve ever shared a couple of boilermakers with a fellow in an Irish pub, you’ll know what I mean when I ask you if
the pub really existed or, like so much that is Irish, was it is merely the stuff of legend?
Conor McPherson, the brilliant author of “The Weir” and “
Shining City,” has taken it upon himself to write the perfect contemporary Irish play, a work that
wants to plunge into the deep waters of alcoholic nightmares and, at the same time, have a grand old time with the fanciful ways that drinkers
share. And he has turned the Devil himself into one of the characters to further blur the lines
between ghosts of Irish plays past and the harsh truths of alcoholism in the modern world. Call his new play, “The Seafarer,” a bridge between
the then and the now of Irish theater and you’ll have some idea of what McPherson has attempted. Has he succeeded? Not entirely, but the attempt
is fairly sensational.
Just listen to McPherson’s description of the play’s setting: “The action takes place in a house in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement
north of Dublin City. It is an old area which could hardly be called a town these days. It is rather a suburb of the city with a church and
a few pubs and shops at its heart. From the coast here, one is looking at the north side of the Howth peninsula. Howth Heaed (Binn Eadir)
is a hill on the peninsula which marks the northern arm of Dublin Bay. Due to its prominence it has long been the focus of myths and
legends.” Talk about being specific. Talk about creating a mood.
The house itself, in Rae Smith’s magnificently ugly design, looks shabby and decrepit enough with the lights off, but, once lit by
Neil Austin, it is a haunted house that is almost splendid in its seediness, its dark corners rich with shadows from which the Devil could
emerge. Not a place you’d want to live in, perhaps, but one which, in your dreams, could turn in an instant into a ghost ship carrying you
off into uncharted waters. It is also, quite simply, a masterpiece of topsy-turviness, as befits a house inhabited by drunks. The living
room is subterranean even though it leads to a door that can take its characters outside, but the front door to the house is two stories
up, so that everytime the doorbell rings, nobody is apt to run upstairs to see who it is. And make note that the house belongs to a crusty
old curmudgeon named Richard Harkin (Jim Norton) who just happens to be blind. For him, just getting from here to there is problem enough
but to go from down to up is clearly the path to madness.
Ivan (Conleth Hill) doesn’t live there but he might as well, for all intents and purposes, because drink has given him such a case
of the jitters that he can barely move – although, to be sure, he can turn the jitters into a dance, and the dance into a series of falls
that even an acrobat would think twice about trying. Richard’s brother, Sharky (David Morse), a gentle giant of a man, seems to have moved
in primarily to watch over his brother and clean up after him and Ivan, which he does with a saint’s patience, even though his efforts are
more or less constantly thwarted.
That leaves Richard and Ivan to indulge in all sorts of shenanigans which are played out with a strong sense of what one might
call natural behavior, but which nevertheless would seem more apt in a Marx Brothers movie. A good deal of the play’s opening movement
– one might even say a good deal more time than is absolutely necessary – is spent soaking up the atmosphere with these shenanigans. And,
although the dialogue is salty and flavorful, director McPherson is having infinitely more fun here than playwright McPherson, creating a
company that will rank high among the season’s more thrilling acting ensembles.
Added to the broth is a nervy and nervous crony of Richard and Ivan, Nicky Giblin (Sean Mahon), who is here to join them for their
Christmas card game. Did I mention that this takes place on Christmas Eve? And, sure, what better time than Christmas, a time for quaffing
some holiday cheer, a time for miracles, and a time notoriously famous for depressions that often lead to suicide? And Nicky brings with
him a stranger, a certain Mr. Lockwood (the estimable Ciaran Hinds), who, in the midst of this crew of pub chasers, stands out in his rain
coat, his fedora, his shiny suit and his red tie. And, when he enters, everything in the room seems to match his tie, so it is giving away
no secret to tell you that Mr. Lockwood is none other than old Lucifer come for the soul of Sharky Harkin. Why? Because Sharky, back in the
days before he began his road to recovery, was the sort of alcoholic who, when enraged, became downright murderous. It seems he got away
with murder once. Will he get away with it again? With his soul intact? Will Mr. Lockhart prove to be too powerful an adversary?
And, for an answer to these questions, as well as to spend more time with this quintet of wonderful actors, we give up the
somewhat meandering chattiness and busyness of the first act and return all too willingly for the potential terrors of the second
act. At first, nothing much has changed. The three cronies are drinking the dregs now,
performing their own caterwauling version of a Midnight Mass, and remaining oblivious to the fact that they are playing poker with someone
who obviously couldn’t be there. But the winds are howling, the rain is pissing down, and, just outside, the winos are gathering together
with a collective case of delirium tremens. And the air is filled with expectation. Don’t tell me that McPherson isn’t writing a play about
alcoholism and that, for all the joking around, he isn’t being deadly serious. And he is particularly serious about separating Irish myth
from Irish reality.
And when one of them mentions that Cork City is the gay capital of the world, is McPherson slyly suggesting that, under all their
sodden cameraderie, alcoholics are latent homosexuals? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time
that such a suggestion has been made either in literature or in psychological manifestoes. But it may very well be the first time the
subject has been broached in an Irish play, casual though it might seem. I merely point out that it has been pointed out.
All the performances are stunning; the ensemble work, as previously
noted, is impeccable. But, in addition to Hill’s hilarious physicality, one must single out the curious mixture of calm and tension that exist
simultaneously in David Morse’s face and body which bespeak a whole spectrum of hidden emotions, and, above all, the ease that Jim Norton
brings to his unforgettable portrait of an adorable monster.
“The Seafarer” is a weird one, tragic and comic and fantastical, and a distinguished addition to the new season. And it offers
further persuasive evidence that Conor McPherson is not only one of our more ferociously talented playwrights but also one of our better
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com