By Conor McPherson
Directed by Matt Miller
Performed at The Den Theatre
1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Nov 29, 2012 – Jan 5, 2014
EXTENDED through Feb 8, 2014
Another eerie and darkly humorous masterpiece from Conor McPherson. On Christmas Eve, a pair of brothers are set to enjoy the holidays in true Dublin spirit with cards, booze and friends — until a stranger from long ago arrives to collect a debt. Conor McPherson is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, named by the New York Times as “the finest playwright of his generation.”
*Member of Actor’s Equity Association
From the Chicago Tribune
December 12, 2013
Playwright Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” takes place on the kind of Christmas Eve too often ignored in the season of mandatory cheer — one filled with recrimination, booze and soul-crushing fears of what the future holds, in this life and the next. But for a certain species of bruised romantic-turned-skeptic, it also contains a powerful thread of redemption, or at least empathy. And in McPherson’s world, those qualities are often the same thing.
This may well be McPherson’s masterpiece to date — his latest, “The Night Alive,” is now in a playwright-directed U.S. premiere at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, starring the original cast from London’s Donmar Warehouse. I was enthralled by the much-lauded 2008 Christmas-season production of “The Seafarer” at Steppenwolf that boasted a powerhouse cast, including John Mahoney, Tom Irwin and Francis Guinan. But Matt Miller’s staging for Seanachai Theatre Company can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that ensemble — though the characters too often, as Elvis Costello once sang, can’t stand up for falling down.
Two-days-sober Sharky (Dan Waller) is the designated driver at the moldering Irish flat where the action unfolds, though his own job as a chauffeur for a real-estate developer has apparently fallen victim to his ill-advised affair with the boss’ wife. His caviling brother, Richard (Brad Armacost) and hapless friend Ivan (Ira Amyx) are waking up from an epic boozer as the play begins. Since Richard lost his sight a few months earlier in a concussion and Ivan can’t find his glasses, Sharky is literally the only one who can see what’s going on. But his commitment to staying off the booze is sorely tested when flashy Nicky (Shane Kenyon), who is now shacked up with Sharky’s ex, shows up with the devilishly insinuating Mr. Lockhart (Kevin Theis) for a card game with stakes far beyond penny-ante.
Theis’ Satan-in-a-suit makes a better fit in some ways with the grungy world of Sharky and Richard than Irwin’s self-possessed and L.A.-slick soul-claimer did at Steppenwolf. Theis plays Lockhart with the same hair-trigger temperament and hint of self-loathing that coats all these characters as surely as nicotine and years of assorted filth cling to the walls of Joe Schermoly’s claustrophobic set. This paradoxically makes the ending even more believable. The devil is indeed in the details, and in a place where drunken carelessness reigns, the details are bound to get foggy. Even for Lucifer.
The intimacy of the Den space brings the squalor up so close you can practically smell the despair. But you can also see the struggle toward better angels — especially in Waller’s beautifully understated but always on-point performance. In the past, Waller has mostly struck me as an actor who excels at playing some variant on a man-child. He still seems markedly younger than Armacost’s seedy and comically rich Richard. But Waller’s Sharky is a man caught between the muscled bravado of youth and the realization that he’s set sail on the polluted waters of midlife without a pole star to guide him.
Kenyon has a ball with the oily Miller-swilling Nicky, but perhaps the real revelation here is Amyx’s Ivan, whose burly and bearded presence at first calls to mind Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover.” What seemed like highly burnished bumbling comic relief in Alan Wilder’s performance at Steppenwolf comes through here as a crucial underpinning to the moral conundrums of McPherson’s script. In McPherson’s world, people tend to take — and save — each other’s lives more often by pure dumb accident than malice or self-sacrifice.
“The Seafarer,” unlike McPherson’s earlier works (including 2001’s “Port Authority,” now playing at Writers’ Theatre) doesn’t depend upon long, self-revelatory monologues. Instead, these shattered souls come through in snippets of argumentative dialogue and reminiscence, rendered with nearly perfect timing and nuance by Miller’s riveting cast.
Only Mr. Lockhart gets a longish speech, describing hell as a place of complete and total isolation. By contrast, McPherson’s world of men locked in what W.H. Auden described in his poem “Atlantis” as “hard liquor, horseplay and noise” seems positively idyllic — a voyage well worth the pain sometimes inflicted by one’s fellow travelers to the grave.
From the Chicago Reader
December 2, 2013
Conor McPherson’s 2006 play unfolds in the squalid home of Irish brothers Richard, a petulant drunk who’s recently lost his eyesight, and Sharky, a hotheaded drunk who’s recently lost his job. They spend Christmas Eve playing poker with neighboring drunks Ivan and Nicky, as well as a suave stranger who turns out to be the devil come to collect Sharky’s soul. It may not sound like ideal holiday fare, but McPherson supplies a kind of provisional redemption that feels more earned and far more genuine than what you’ll find in most entertainment options this time of year. Matt Miller’s fine staging for Seanachai Theatre Company is beautifully acted, particularly by an energetically cranky Brad Armacost as Richard and a touchingly befuddled Ira Amyx as Ivan.
December 9, 2013
The devil sure knows his way around Chicago. Besides the usual mixture of gang violence and Rahm-style politics, Satan has been a feature of many recent stage productions, including his recent stint in The Gift Theatre’s “Broadsword.” What makes this production different is that, in this play, Lucifer is introduced into a classic Irish gothic play (the type where the characters spend a lot of time talking about leaving the house but instead mostly just drink).
Directed by Matt Miller and written less than a decade ago by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, “Seafarer” presents a world where you can learn a lot about a character by the drink they choose. There is the loud American type (played by Shane Kenyon). He is a Miller guy. The flawed hero of this tale, Sharky (Dan Waller) is taking a break from the booze. His older, blind brother Richard drinks whatever he can get his hands on (and also seems to enjoy reminding Sharky that he is a lousy drunk). Ivan, their drunk, mutual friend, is also not very discriminating about what he drinks. In fact, much of the first act is spent setting up the sheer wretchedness of the situation as they all prepare for a Christmas Eve get together that culminates in a certain someone coming to play a couple hands of poker and collect on a few debts.
The devil is in the details and I rather like McPherson’s idea of him as a powerful but jealous, almost pitiful demon. Played well by veteran actor Kevin Theis, the devil here is commanding when he needs to be and weak when the script calls for it. Pitted against Satan is the deeply flawed Sharky. Waller puts in just the right amount of vulnerability. The play is at its best when stripped down to just those two actors.
What surprised me the most about this production were the strong religious undertones. The devil here repeatedly alludes to the holy nature of Christmas. His description of hell, being trapped in a cold grave under the darkest sea where you are always waiting (hoping) to just die, almost made me go straight to temple after the show. And the ending, which I will not ruin, is dripping with redemption. It is as if the “Devil Went Down to Georgia” was reimagined as a sermon. This is a Christmas mass worth attending.
From Chicago Theater Beat
December 8, 2013
It’s Christmas time. Richard plans to spend the holiday blind-stinking drunk… literally. Brad Armacost (Richard) is a boozer who lost his eyesight. No one in Chicago plays a sloshed Irishman more charming than Armacost. In The Seafarer, Armacost is hilariously inebriated. A vivid storyteller, Armacost has this marvelous ability to draw the audience in to his drama and turn it into a jocular adventure. He amuses everyone but his brother, played by the stalwart Dan Waller (Sharky).
Conor McPherson penned this Irish tale of going home for the holidays. Sharky has returned to Dublin to help his disabled brother. During his stay, he is visited by unwelcomed guests from his past. They’ve been invited by Richard for drinks and cards. McPherson’s set-ups cackle with back-slapping, shot-swigging, male-fraternizing. These guys are having a good time. Their banter feels like whiskey-soaked spontaneity. In mid fabrication, Armacost viciously goes off on the annoying winos outside. Or Ira Amyx (Ivan) injects an odd comment that is both riotous and bizarre. Or the amicable and clueless Shane Kenyon (Nicky) schmoozes everyone, including his girlfriend’s ex. These sudden shifts in party chatter seem the natural outcome of the inebriated. They’re slurring their thoughts. Dark comedy gold.
Within this merry-making, McPherson yanks the rug out. He drops an otherworldly twist into this holiday libation. Director Matt Miller paces the tomfoolery with spirited stumbling. Then, Miller introduces the polished Kevin Theis (Lockhart) in a dramatic pause. The added tension is sobering. Theis effectively kills the party buzz for Waller. The stakes are raised for the card game. And the stone-faced Waller impressively plays his hand.
I loved The Seafarer. The writing, directing and acting are superb. I was keenly aware, especially in Act 1, that often I was the only one laughing at Armacost and Amyx’s antics. They are playing pathetic drunks and they are a hoot. I wondered if my Irish ancestry allowed me to better enjoy their shenanigans. I remember the big flop of the movie “Arthur 2” where Hollywood learned laughing at alcoholics wasn’t politically correct. Still, I find pissed Irish men amusing. Though I wouldn’t want to marry one, onstage they entertain.
From Windy City Times
Decmeber 4, 2013
Maybe it’s the wedding guest who overhears the bride and the best man preparing to elope, or the pallbearer who foresees a nasty graveside squabble between warring families. Imagine the unease of the sole participant in possession of a secret with the power to destroy everything the occasion symbolizes. What will the unlucky prophet do with his knowledge?
This is the question that generates the tension in Conor McPherson’s fable of second chances bestowed through divine intervention. His parable proposes two brothers: Richard Harkin, sightless since suffering a concussion a few months previous, occupies himself with swilling whiskey and haranguing his younger sibling Sharky, a chronic loser like himself, who has sworn off drinking for two days as of this Christmas Eve. Sadsack buddies Ivan and Nicky arrive at the Harkins’ shabby home in search of a tipple and a few hands of poker, the latter bringing with him a stranger, who confides to Sharky that tonight marks the anniversary of a debt incurred decades earlier — remuneration to be rendered, not in money or even in blood, but in coin far more precious.
Audiences recalling the actor-based Steppenwolf production witnessed complex characters crafted for maximum commercial appeal, but the Seanachai ensemble takes its name from the Gaelic word for storyteller, making director Matt Miller’s focus the collective progress of this unlikely band of bunglers whose histories first obstruct, then propel, them on the road to their redemption. The intimate quarters of The Den’s front-room mainstage further spotlight the narrative arc by allowing no detail, however small, to go unregistered (the moment when beer-drinker Nicky switches to the hard stuff, for example, or the struggle of a hungover Ivan, whose eyeglasses have disappeared somewhere in the man-cave detritus, to butter his morning toast.)
The rapport forged by the five cast members’ (Dan Waller, Brad Armacost, Kevin Theis, Ira Amyx and Shane Kenyon) extensive experience performing together likewise reinforces the interactive dynamics of McPherson’s hard-luck revelers (even during the long scenes devoted solely to the generically spectator-unfriendly business of cardplay), so that we recognize, almost at the same time as they do, of how their fates are inextricably intertwined. This realization might not make them any more lovable — to us, or to each other — but constitutes reason enough to halt their bickering and unite in defeating the high-stakes gambler who, when he speaks of “going to the hole in the wall,” does not mean the sidewalk ATM.