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Theatre in Review: The Seafarer (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Matthew Broderick, Andy Murray. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

I believe in the Devil, but I'm not sure I believe in Matthew Broderick. The actor is currently appearing at the Irish Rep as Mr. Lockhart, who has been invited in for a Christmas Eve round of poker in the home of Richard Harkin, a blind old boozer who lives -- no, revels -- in squalor in a seaside town north of Dublin. Mr. Lockhart is possessed of an eerie self-possession; unlike the others -- especially Richard, who seems allergic to bathing -- he is nattily dressed in jacket and tie, not a hair out of place. His manner is gentle, watchful, impeccably polite; he never raises his voice, and is an affable conversationalist. Even among strangers, he would be an asset at any social event.

Well, except for one thing. Cornering Sharky, Richard's younger brother and, currently, his caretaker, Mr. Lockhart identifies himself: "I'm the son of the morning, Sharky, the snake in the garden." And, he adds, he has arrived to collect Sharky's soul. Sharky has seemingly committed all the self-damage one can do with the drink, uncontrolled anger, and all-around bad choices -- so much so that he needs reminding that, twenty-five years earlier, he killed a vagrant, beating him to death behind a pub. He was arrested and landed in a cell with Mr. Lockhart, who lost to him in a game of cards. For his winnings, Sharky's arrest was mysteriously rescinded, thanks to the intervention of Mr. Lockhart. Now Lockhart has returned and, casting Sharky to the ground, he says, "We're gonna play for your soul and I'm gonna win and you're coming through the old hole in the wall with me tonight."

It's quite a setup, and in the National Theatre production of Conor McPherson's drama, seen on Broadway in 2007, Ciarán Hinds' Mr. Lockhart exuded an air of satanic menace. His restraint, it was clear, was merely for show; behind it lurked the terrors of the earth. Without raising his voice, he introduced a note of blackness into what previously had been an evening of drunken horsing around. Indeed, everything we had seen before was cast in a sinister new light, and the poker game became an exercise in suspense.

I'm sorry to say that Broderick's Mr. Lockhart doesn't have the faintest hint of brimstone. The actor has played a wide range of mild-mannered characters, often to good effect, but the genteelly expressed viciousness of Mr. Lockhart eludes him. McPherson's writing is so powerful that at times the actor can't help making an impact. When he says, "I hate these stupid insect bodies you have," one realizes with a start that one is looking at a shade behind which lurks a much more frightening reality. (He even complains that the body he has borrowed for the occasion is, inconveniently, left-handed.) And Mr. Lockhart's depiction of hell, as a place where self-loathing reigns without a check, is a stunner: "There truly is no one to love you. Not even Him. He lets you go. Even He's sick of you. You're locked in a space that's smaller than a coffin. And it's lying a thousand miles down, under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch-black sea." There's more, and it's a vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, built word by pitiless word. In its fearsomeness, it may be the most beautiful thing McPherson has ever written.

Even in such moments, however, Broderick -- who, not too long ago, excelled in the Irish Rep revival of McPherson's Shining City -- doesn't provide the touch of evil that can lend so much tension, as well as a kind of poetic theology, to The Seafarer. As a result, the focus shifts to Richard and the comedy of his appalling personal habits and nonstop drinking. (The characters in The Seafarer imbibe so much, they make the cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like a bunch of twelve-steppers.) Richard is a giant baby who needs constant tending -- the blindness is the result of a fall, no doubt when he was half in the bag -- and when his next dram of whiskey is late in arriving, he is likely to bellow, in a voice that recalls the theatre of Henry Irving, "I have so little to live for!" All of this is good fun, and Colin McPhillamy is clearly having a high old time playing this old faker. He gets solid support from Michael Mellamphy as Ivan, who never seems to leave, either because of inebriation, fear of his wife, or inability to find his glasses; in one especially treasurable moment, trapped in a hangover fog, he crosses the room, leans in, and places his head against the wall. Tim Ruddy is fine as Nicky, who introduces Mr. Lockhart to the party; he has also helped himself to Sharky's former lover and isn't the least bit apologetic about it, providing another undertone of conflict.

Andy Murray underplays skillfully as Sharky, but with Ciarán O'Reilly's production being so unbalanced, it's hard to appreciate how his character progresses down a via dolorosa, stares damnation in the face, and, ultimately, experiences the power of forgiveness. His Sharky never feels fully lost; as a result, his redemption isn't as front and center as it should be.

Make no mistake: Ciarán O'Reilly has mounted a highly respectable production that is likely to please McPherson fans. Charlie Corcoran's set is an effectively disordered, with its grimy walls and clutter -- including dozens of beer cans and whiskey bottles -- everywhere. Brian Nason's lighting progresses from late afternoon into evening, concluding with a chilly dawn, all of it rendered with skill. Martha Hally's costumes provide a distinct look for each character -- note Richard's mismatched socks -- especially Mr. Lockhart's natty ensemble. The sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, provides fine reinforcement for the piano-and-cello pieces composed by Rumery, as well as such effects as wind, surf, a radio, and thunder.

I hope I don't sound too unkind when I say I wish Matthew Broderick had gone to the devil, but there it is. If the wicked fellow doesn't cast a dark shadow across the action, a play that grapples with the meaning, in a secular society, of damnation and salvation becomes a rather cozy comedy about a bunch of Irish drunks. This Seafarer will probably provide a good time for many. But it may not be the good time McPherson had in mind. -- David Barbour

(19 April 2018)

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