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Soul-selling seems to be in vogue in Washington just now—could it be our reflexive cynicism, no matter the political season?—but the devil himself can’t come between two Irishmen (and their whiskey, and their friends); I say this as the proud son of a Scots-Irish clan, and on the evidence of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, which isn’t a documentary but ought to be.
As in This Lime Tree Bower, McPherson’s 1995 fantasia on fraternal malcontents with too much time and too much booze on their hands, there’s a pungent love-hate vibe pulsing through its chronicle of two brothers—one recently blinded in a dumpster-diving mishap, the other resisting an inclination toward blind, belligerent drunkenness.
Like Shining City, the funny-heartbreaking Dublin ghost story Studio staged last year, The Seafarer is a contemporary yarn spun of roughly 97 percent gimlet-eyed realism, those last points reserved for the odd hair-raising supernatural manifestation: It traffics in name-brand stouts and recognizable whiskies, in place names and pub signs at which an actual Dubliner might nod knowingly, and yet somehow it makes perfect sense that on the Christmas Eve in question, the Brothers Harkin might find themselves playing poker with Old Scratch for the younger sibling’s soul.
And like both of those plays, it’s a playwright’s gift to actors: Local color or no, a baroque anecdote or three notwithstanding, thematic interest in Faustian bargains and inescapable sins aside, McPherson isn’t trafficking in the brand of showiness that marks much of Beane’s writing. No, The Seafarer serves up characters on a tarnished platter, and Studio’s impressive ensemble cast takes ruthless, happy advantage of them.
Floyd King casts aside his clown’s mantle as blind, bibulous Richard, pushing his voice down into a register I’ve never heard him use and adopting a mean, put-upon air; bundled up by designer Helen Q. Huang in a housebound alcoholic’s stinking, slept-in clothes, he’s a picture of walking dissolution. Edward Gero’s Ivan, catastrophically hungover from his first entrance, is Richard’s woefully henpecked enabler, and Billy Meleady’s long-suffering Sharky is a study in suppressed exasperation—an anxiously sober man summoning patience for the tomfoolery of the tippling eedjits with whom he’s been saddled.
Jeff Allin, so put-upon and patrician in Theatre J’s Bal Masque a few years back, takes a much earthier turn as Nicky, the cheerful rascal who’s inherited both Sharky’s ex and his auto, and who turns up for a game of cards on Christmas Eve, much to the latter’s annoyance. But the real danger comes in the person of one Mr. Lockhart (Philip Goodwin), who’s been standing Nicky drinks all day but seems surprisingly in command of himself when the two come to darken the Harkins’ door.
What Lockhart wants—well, you know, don’t you? Sharky’s been a bad boy now and again; there’s a reason he’s not drinking, a cause behind that quiet, compressed demeanor, and a dark deal in days past that helped him escape the consequences of a night he’d rather not remember. And the others have secrets of their own, most of them anyway, choices they might make differently given the chance, stories they’d just as soon not retell on a holy night.
They’ll get retold anyway, though; it is, after all, an Irish play. The whiskey and then the moonshine will flow, the stakes will grow high, forces older than Ireland will clash, and the end will hinge, surprisingly quietly, on the turn of a card.
The play, like its characters, tells stories in its own time, and director Paul Mullins hasn’t done much to make it feel less dilatory. It’s heresy to suggest it, but this is one Studio production you might successfully second-act without missing much, plot-wise.
You’d miss so much fine stagecraft, though: King and Gero, Allin and Goodwin and especially Meleady, all of them circling each other, needling, haranguing, placating, wheedling, making mischief and making do on a day they keep trying to make special, when the circumstances of their lives seem anything but. It’s heartbreaking stuff, attentively handled—and in the end it’s every bit as satisfying as the momentous confrontation that finally comes to pass.