Also see Tim's review of The Producers
It's the story of Sharky, who lives in North Dublin and is plodding through his fifties. He's given up alcohol, but it's Christmas Eve, and he has his hands full taking care of two sots who have started celebrating the holiday early: his brother Richard and Richard's friend Ivan. Richard has lost his sight in a drunken accident, while Ivan has misplaced his glasses and can barely see. (Those are two examples of the light/vision imagery that The Seafarer traffics in, and sometimes lays on a bit thickly.) Sharky, meanwhile, has lost a few things too; he's lost his job as a chauffeur due to an indiscretion, and he's lost his wife to a neighborhood lout named Nicky. Now Nicky has been invited over to Sharky's dilapidated house (against Sharky's wishes) to participate in a card game. And Nicky has brought along Mr. Lockhart, a dapper figure who doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of this boorish lot. But Lockhart is more than what he seems: He reminds Sharky that they have met before, and tells him that the two have a score to settle. "I'm the son of the morning, Sharky," says Lockhart, "I'm the snake in the garden. I've come here for your soul this Christmas ..." For Sharky, no card game has ever had stakes so high.
The Seafarer works best as a character study. Sharky has to take care of his older brother, and he ends up taking care of everyone else too. He's accommodating to a fault, but his resentment is obvious. McPherson writes some great speeches, many of which come from the sinister Mr. Lockhart. This is also a play that says a lot with its silence; the hurt expression on Sharky's face when Richard hurls an insult at him say more than any speech ever could.
But the script has dull spots, and David O'Connor's direction drags at times. During act one there are several moments in which all the characters are missing from the stageyou can hear dialogue and sound effects from offstage, but there's nothing onstage to hold one's interest. And act one gets repetitive as McPherson runs the "drunken Irishman" cliché into the ground.
Then the mysterious Mr. Lockhart arrives, and the story picks up speed. McPherson has said the tale is based on a local legend, but it's a legend that has, over the centuries, become a bit hackneyed and trite. And the twist ending, while it's a funny one, seems slight and tacked on. But, like so many Irish writers, McPherson knows how to tell a story well, and his poetic (and profane) way with words makes this an interesting ride.
A lot of credit goes to the performances, too. William Zielinski makes Sharky very sympathetic, progressing from a pitiable figure to a man worthy of respect. Brian Russell manages to be charming even as he is slowly revealed as a bully. There are nice comic turns from Joe Hickey and Anthony Lawton, and a riveting, intense performance by Greg Wood as Mr. Lockhart. The set design by David P. Gordon perfectly depicts a house that hasn't had any women living in it for a while. (The mismatched seat cushions are a nice touch.)
Eventually the moody stillness of The Seafarer becomes absorbing, and its message of redemption is an uplifting one. It's an evening that will be worth your while if you can hang in therebut hanging in there might be a wee bit of a chore.
The Seafarer runs through June 14, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.