When ensemble acting trumps a playwright's overreaching

McPherson's "Seafarer' at the Arden (2nd Review)

4 minute read
Zielinski, Wood: Poor devils, plus one real one. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Zielinski, Wood: Poor devils, plus one real one. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
To call the men in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer losers is not off the mark. Everyone has lost something: Richard his sight, Ivan his glasses, Sharkey his woman and his jobs— and these are just the metaphors.

Losers these characters may be, but the actors are exceptional: each one a virtuoso, and together an ensemble of the first rank. They hold their own, maintaining their individuality, their brogues, their particular brands of inebriation. With one exception— though it's a big one— McPherson's descent into the interior of Everyman succeeds.

No question the ambience and subject are dismal. A Dublin flat (David Gordon's got the basement clutter spot-on) where co-dependent brothers squabble and risk more than they know on a poker game. Two brothers, two friends, a stranger on Christmas Eve, a time when few of us, no matter the intention, get things right.

Alcoholism is hardly fun, but The Seafarer's black humor plays fast and furious. David O'Connor's brilliant direction is a scherzo of overlapping jibes and pratfalls. The tragicomic timing is musical, the momentum as terraced as a baroque concerto.

Then, wham! Things fall apart. In the silences, nuances pile up. They've been there all along in every character's gesture, inflection, pace.

An Irish Archie Bunker

Younger sibling Sharkey's efforts to abstain are pivotal here. "OK, so you're an alcoholic," his brother Richard spits out like an Irish Archie Bunker. "But you're alive!" William Zielinski's Sharkey has a slouch and a put-upon demeanor that announces his attempts at valor, as well as concealment. His loneliness is palpable.

The bullying brother Richard— one of those buffoons who always manage to be ringleader— is masterfully portrayed by Brian Russell. He's lost his sight on Halloween, falling into a dumpster. He rules with dirty digs, self-pity and a blind man's cane.

Well-meaning bumblers flock to his side: Kind Ivan (Anthony Lawton), who cannot refuse a pint to save himself or a burning building, played so rightly that the pathos is mesmerizing. Hail fellow Nicky (Joe Hickey), is the thorn in earnest Sharkey's side. His jittery physicality cries out for medication.

We know these fellows; more's the pity and the glory.

An unpersuasive Devil

As in McPherson's other dramas (The Shining City) and screenplays (The Eclipse), the supernatural takes a part here. In the Arden production the role of the devil, aka Mr. Lockhart, feels suspect and self-conscious. Greg Wood portrays this elegant stranger, who tells Sharkey he has come for his soul. Wood is an extremely able actor, but here he performs with less than his usual persuasion. The devil on the boards is such a timeworn device (not just in Irish literature) that the character had better be incredibly persuasive if he's not going to stretch the bounds of credulity and sentiment. Both snap here.

The Seafarer's title and impetus is the Eighth-Century Anglo Saxon poem whose allegorical nature is still under debate. Director O'Connor quotes a stanza in the program book:

He knows not,
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea

Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,
While hail flew past in showers.

Must we be so literal?

Lockhart's lines resonate with the images above. His facile interpretation could relate to the stranger's exile. But all these characters suffer exiles of one sort or another— particularly Sharkey, whose conscience has been hounding him for a guilt he didn't see until Lockhart's arrival.

Finding empathy for both the poor devils in the basement and the Devil who can take them out, McPherson has overloaded his play. Art doesn't have to succeed on every count to be a success. Battling the devil in the mind is no less heroic than personifying him.

A friend suggested that Sharkey's belief in Lockhart's threat was a liquor-induced hallucination. I like that interpretation better than McPherson's. The bone-crushing pain and cruelty and loneliness men survive is too often exacerbated by drink and joke, stupidity and hope and caffeine. Life bumbles on in spite of everything. We keep going. This The Seafarer examines very well. â—†

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.

What, When, Where

The Seafarer. By Conor McPherson; directed by David O’Connor. Through June 14, 2009 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. 
(215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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