For more coverage of The Seafarer, see our interview with Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd.
Guess who's coming to play cards? If you're hell-bent on seeing Conor McPherson's brogue-laced Christian tall tale, The Seafarer, read no further, because there's a spoiler to be revealed. This isn't disclosed to diminish your pleasure, which the five superlative actors enhance with a fine Irish whiskey fog and impeccable technique, but because this main plot point is the crux of McPherson's whole enterprise.
Sharky (James Black), a bruised bruiser with little future and not much chance of having one, has taken up residence with his passive-aggressive, mostly aggressive, brother Richard (John Tyson), recently blinded after falling into a Dublin dumpster. He's housemaid, cook, whiskey supplier and nurse to the carping Richard, who mellows slightly whenever a drink is in his hand. Trying to remain sober, Sharky hasn't had a drink in days, which is some kind of record for all these losers. Richard's best friend and enabler Ivan (Declan Mooney, stepping into the role after Jeffrey Bean withdrew because of injury) stumbles through the decrepit house, near-blind after losing his glasses the previous night during another drunken binge.
It's Christmas Eve, so Richard has asked another friend, Nicky (Chris Hutchison), over to play cards with the buddies, even though he knows Nicky is shacked up with Sharky's former girl. But Nicky has brought an unexpected guest he met at the pub, someone looking for Sharky, a Mr. Lockhart (Todd Waite), mysterious but willing to join in the alcohol-fueled game. Here's the spoiler: Lockhart is the Devil. Yes, the actual ruler of Hell, come to claim Sharky's soul, which Sharky gave him 25 years ago when he beat a murder rap. Lockhart will play poker with the boys. Unbeknownst to the rest of them, if Sharky loses, it's eternal bye-bye. (Why Mr. Satan is required to play games at all for the souls he collects is never explained. Maybe the Big Guy Upstairs sets the rules.)
While filled with idiosyncratic dialogue that's clipped and jagged, but with a theatrical sound of verisimilitude, McPherson's play doesn't really surprise. The guys are lovable losers even when sloshed and acting stupid, but the story is right out of a Twilight Zone episode, albeit punched up with nonstop profanity and regional color. Lockhart is given a chilling little monologue about the depths of Hell, whose frights -- suffocation, anxiety, loneliness -- are merely deathly extensions of life on earth for these men who can't do anything right and have frittered away their meager existence. But the rest is rather been-there, seen-that, no matter how picturesquely set and seen.
The ensemble is above reproach. The devil is in the details, since the woebegone guys aren't all that different. There's plenty of back story but each is, first and foremost, down on his luck, royally screwed up and drunk on his ass. Yet each actor finds novel, and comic, twists on how to slyly illuminate his character. Perhaps if they weren't so stereotyped already at the Alley, we'd discover more in them, but we've seen these actors in similar mode: volcanic seether (Black), irascible coot (Tyson), adorable doofus (Hutchison), cool sophisticate (Waite). The real surprise is newcomer Mooney, an understudy when the play opened on Broadway in 2007. We have no preconceptions about him, so his natural playing style is refreshing and unaffected. Continuously tipsy throughout and blighted by farsightedness, even his smallest gestures carry immense comic weight. Henpecked at home, he fits squarely in at Richard's, soothing the muddled waters between warring brothers. He's just another average bloke blindly stumbling through life.
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The production is ravishing, with Hugh Landwehr's dank, decayed setting a major character. In the decrepit outskirts of Dublin, the house, or what's left of it, drips atmosphere. Everything is ripped or peeling, the walls crawl with mold and damp. You can smell the rot. Lighting designer Rui Rita gives this godforsaken (?) home a spectral look, and at one point it goes all white when redemption may be nigh. Director Gregory Boyd keeps the action taut, even when it flags under McPherson, and there's a lively rhythm between the guys that keeps us involved and amused. We like them all, except "you know who," but even he is just as lost as they are. In a way, Mr. Lockhart is the loneliest one of all. Feared, yes. But he is utterly unloved. In McPherson's world, that is hell indeed.
McPherson's comic little ghost story resolves into a nifty morality tale, with a deeply felt moral that redeems the humans. Goodness is its own reward, he says, and that kind of Christian good is hardly talked about, let alone the subject of a contemporary play. It's sort of shocking to see such naked faith given such a positive nod. We should be thankful for the life affirmation, if we all don't go to hell first.
McPherson's Irish comedy plays through May 5 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-228-8421. $45-$77.