There’s almost no limit to how much an Irishman can drink, but there is to how much of a story can be garnered from it. And for the first act of The Seafarer, Connor McPherson’s latest drama currently playing at the Booth Theatre, that limit appears to have been reached. Staged in a bleak, dreary set of an untidy home, the play introduces us to a motley crew of Irish alcoholics, all haphazardly thrown together on Christmas Eve. Sharky (David Morse) is a quiet, reticent man attempting to have a nice Christmas with his family. The fact that his family includes Richard, (Jim Norton) a blind, rambunctious and above all, eternally thirsty man, seems to be thwarting Sharky’s intentions at every turn. They have also opened their home to Ivan (Conleth Hill), an apparently harmless, bumbling fool who has lost his glasses, and, later that evening, Nicky (Sean Mahon) and his friend Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds). Poker is to be played, but the stakes are higher than usual in this game, which unveils the hidden pasts of several of its players and forces them to pay their debts – literally as well as figuratively.
The instigator of the drama is Lockhart, a sleek, suave man clad in a suit who seems to be the only one in the group who can hold his drink. However, as he quickly revels to Sharky, he is not a mere visitor from out of town. He is visiting from much farther away, and if he beats Sharky in the poker game, he will be taking Sharky back with him.
It is at this point when the show progresses from mere story to allegory and every action taking place onstage carriers a heavier weight. Do Ivan’s missing glasses symbolize mental or emotional blindness as well as physical? Do Richard’s caustic words cover a deeper hurt? How about the fact that Nick is currently dating Sharky’s ex-wife? And what about Sharky’s past?
Despite the best intentions, the literary aspects of the show fall flat at certain times, and they are unable to be recovered. However, the show continues to carry, thanks to the top-notch performances put on by a truly stellar cast. Each man excels at the role he is playing, creating compelling characters that, despite their foggy backgrounds, warrant the audience’s investment and interest.
Playing a man with a past can be a daunting challenge, but Morse accepts it proudly – and excels at it completely. Sharky has a quiet desperation to maintain control, against all odds. He is not drinking this Christmas, despite the repeated attempts of his friends and family to change his mind, and his determination is admirable – and heartbreaking at the same time. Norton shines as the bird-like, shrewd and harsh-spoken Richard, giving a completely convincing performance as a blind man.
The most compelling character of all, however, is not the anti-hero, nor is it the loudest of the drunks. It is the Devil himself. The Devil garners sympathy – and much of it – from the audience. When he explains why he is there and what it is that he wants from Sharky, he is not portrayed as evil or even malicious. Describing the confines of Hell and what Sharky’s experience there will resemble, the picture he paints is not merely one of physical anguish or emotional torment, but also one of desolation and solitude. The Devil, it appears is lonely, wallowing in self-loathing, quite similarly to Sharky himself. Could it be he wants a shoulder to cry on?
The answer to this question is found at the end of a lingering second act, where the plot builds a bit too slowly, and a few other dark secrets are thrown into the poker game. The resolution – and a surprising one at that – is satisfying and subtle.
The Seafarer is no Christmas Carol, nor it is it A Wonderful Life, but it is a surprising story – and a Christmas one at that. It doesn’t promise tidings of comfort and joy, but it does provoke some thought – and maybe a smile or two.