Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, at Circuit Playhouse, is a gritty, gross, and generally hilarious answer to overly familiar holiday parables like A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life.
The pitch-black comedy about a pair of hard-drinking brothers living in squalor in Dublin's northern suburbs plays out like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone but without the obvious moral punch line. It has been fawned over by critics who've all drawn singular conclusions about the play's meaning while comparing the meandering script to works by celebrated Irish playwrights like Sean O'Casey and Samuel Beckett. But The Seafarer, named for an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, may very well be a grand April fool's joke tied up with a Christmas ribbon. Like Edgar Allan Poe, the author has assumed the role of a trickster and written a moral-free morality play to make fools of his critics while keeping the audience entertained and on the edge of their seats.
"It has been shown that no man can sit down to write without a very profound design," Poe wrote in his introduction to "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," a satirical short story about Toby Dammit, an impoverished man of many vices who, like Sharkey — an impoverished man of many vices and the default protagonist in McPherson's play — makes an unfortunate wager with a character who may or may not be the devil.
Poe's point was that his critics wanted stories with morals and tidy endings and would find these things in his writing whether he put them there or not. "When the proper time arrives, all that [an author] intended, and all that he did not intend, will be brought to light, in the [newspaper] together with all that he ought to have intended, and the rest that he clearly meant to intend," Poe concluded. Those cutting lines might also make a proper prologue for The Seafarer, since there's not a reliable narrator in the cast, making it impossible to determine what actually transpires.
Michael Gravois' physical transformation into Sharkey is impressive. The slight, fair-complected Gravois has, with a bit of rouge, a well-placed band-aid, and a brooding scowl, made himself believable as a drunken Irish brawler. Sharkey has only recently put down the bottle and come home to care for his older brother Richard, who either lost his sight as the result of a Halloween-night accident or because of his fondness for "highly illegal" homemade whiskey. He is a raw nerve, throbbing and aching his way across the stage.
Richard, played with infectious enthusiasm (and at least a half-dozen vaguely Irish accents) by Jim Palmer, is the character most closely associated with the narrator of The Seafarer's namesake poem. Like an old salt who sings about the hardships of life at sea, Palmer gleefully tells hard-luck tales about a drunk's life of poverty and privation, punctuating his obscene rants with slurred hymns and ritualistic praise to a God that seems remote, even on Christmas Eve. Whether cursing his brother's instability or rushing outside to beat up the neighborhood winos, Palmer's joy overwhelms the constant distractions of his wandering accent.
Does the devil really show up to drink his fill of Irish whiskey and play a few hands of Christmas Eve poker with Sharkey and Richard? Or is The Seafarer's infernal Mr. Lockhart an average bloke whose behavior is distorted by the prisms of drunkenness and detoxification? It's hard to say, and Tony Isbell's poker face gives nothing away in a coolly detached performance that is by turns broadly comical and chill-inducing. McPherson's play may not be about anything in particular, but it does provide many visions of hell and Isbell's no-nonsense description of frozen isolation is far more terrifying than any sermon about fire and brimstone.
No matter how much The Seafarer may toy with the idea of redemption or nod at Frank Capra, it's a Christmas show for people who mistrust Christmas shows. Director Bob Hetherington's production is entertaining, if never quite as tight as it should be, and, occasionally, the whole show threatens to fall into a shapeless heap.
Thankfully, at every uncertain turn the fine ensemble cast, which also includes Ron Gephart and Joshua Quinn, save this gem of a play from breaking apart at its very visible seams.
Through December 20th