By Geary Danihy

Christmas has great meaning for many people, but for the five Irishmen in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, the extremely engaging, Tony-nominated play that recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks, the eve of the holiday is a time for drinking, poker playing and, perhaps, for one of them, losing his soul.

Lest mention of the soul-losing leads you to assume that The Seafarer is a portentous drama, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion. The play is, even with its dark undertones, an earthy comedy of mores, manners, family dysfunction and male bonding, with alcohol the primary adhesive. Set in the somewhat seedy basement of a house in Baldoyle, Ireland, the play’s primary focus is the relationship between two brothers, the hapless Sharky (Dean Nolen) and his elder brother, Richard (Edmond Genest), blinded several months earlier after hitting his head while dumpster-diving for two rolls of wallpaper.

In what may well turn out to be the finest performance of the theatrical season in Connecticut, Genest’s Richard, a philosopher-drunk, is pitch-perfect. From his first entrance – a most unexpected one – to his final lines, Genest owns the stage, creating a self-indulgent, demanding yet worldly-wise character imported directly from the seedier streets of Dublin. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure…or pain…of participating in an Irish family gathering will immediately recognize Richard, for he pontificates at the drop of a hat, has a hair-trigger temper, and can glide from great glee to the depths of despondency quicker than it takes to down a shot of Powers Irish whiskey.

As Richard’s all-suffering brother, Nolen gives a controlled, multi-layered performance as a man on the brink of despair, a man who continuously gags on a primal scream as he contends with his brother’s needs and moods. His problems on the eve of the birth of Christ are compounded by Ivan (John Ahlin), a friend who crashed at their house the night before and wakes nursing a monumental hangover.

Ahlin, though perhaps a but too overactive with his flailing hands, provides many hilarious moments as the booze-befuddled, much obliging comrade who, never having passed a pub he did not tumble into, can always be relied upon to join the party, drinking to the point of forgetting where he has left his glasses and his car, or that he should have bought Christmas presents for his kids.

Into this mix is tossed wheeler-dealer Nicky (Chris Genebach), who is now involved with Sharky’s ex-girlfriend (and driving Sharky’s car, on “loan” to the girlfriend), and Mr. Lockhart (Allen McCullough), an impeccably dressed gentleman who has, inexplicably, been pub crawling with Nicky.

It quickly becomes apparent who Mr. Lockhart really is and what he is after – Sharky’s soul. It’s literary ground well trodden by the likes of Goethe (Faust) and Stephen Vincent Benet (The Devil and Daniel Webster). McPherson also taps into Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which it has been said that its most interesting character is Satan. Sadly, the same cannot be said of McPherson’s take on Old Nick, for his Satan, set against the four vibrant, earthy blokes sitting around the card table in Act Two, is more stereotypical car salesman than Source of All Evil. McCullough is upright when he should be louche, sedulous when he should be seductive.

In an odd yet delightful way, the playwright perhaps sensed his Satan’s weakness, for in the final moments of the play, McPherson has his Satan say to the men at the poker table that they have what he wants. When asked what that is, his answer evokes cynical, oh-so-human laughter. It’s a great moment lessened by a bit with a single electric candle set before a statue of Christ, a candle that finally stays lit when, given the blokes’ laughter at Mr. Lockhart’s expense, should have once again flickered and died.

Yes, The Seafarer appears to be about life and death, salvation and damnation, but that’s not what it’s really about, and that’s not why the audience rose en masse to applaud the cast. What The Seafarer is about is great dialogue, great acting and a sharp insight into the hearts of characters who are bedeviled by themselves. Pry yourself out of your winter lair and trek up to Hartford, if only to revel in than that, but if there weren’t, the trip would still be worthwhile.

The Seafarer runs through Sunday, Dec. 21. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.

This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.

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