Midway through The Seafarer, when it became clear that the play's antagonist was not some abstract embodiment of evil but was in fact the devil himself, out to win the soul of the play's protagonist and send it forever to Judeo-Christian hell, I had a small argument with myself. See, I think that the idea of Jesus is a predatory sham and that the book through which most of us learn about his alleged existence ought to be listed alongside Mein Kampf and the Qur'an in the all-time ledger of literary infamy, and anytime I have to deal with a literal biblical anything, my foot develops a compelling itch. So the argument was this: Should I assume that playwright Conor McPherson has a point, or should I assume that he wants me to get right with god? (I won't capitalize that word, for it is not a proper noun.)
It's a silly argument, I know. I don't think Richard Wagner was trying to turn us all into devout Nordic pagans when he wrote The Ring Cycle, nor have I ever viewed The Clash of the Titans as a piece of pro-Zeus propaganda. I blame my momentary confusion on two things: how very seriously McPherson takes his own characters and the amazing naturalism of the ensemble at the Mosaic Theatre.
As is McPherson's frequent wont, The Seafarer is a narrative driven by talk and fueled by strong drink. Lights up on what appears to be a basement in what is probably not the swankest neighborhood in Ireland. There is a lush asleep on the floor — a blind lush, the owner and inhabitant of the dilapidated property that comprises the set. His brother soon enters to rouse him. He too has taken up residence in the house. The two have a brief, good-natured quarrel, and then the blind man's friend, Ivan, enters. He has spent the night on the property, and he and the blind man are nursing serious hangovers (the blind man's brother is not, for he has sworn off drinking).
It is Christmas Eve, and soon the three set out to gather the necessary ingredients for a decent Christmas dinner (or, judging by their grocery lists, a decent Christmas bender). Blackout, and the play scoots forward in time to Christmas Eve night. The blind man, Richard, has invited back to the house a man with whom his brother, Sharky, has an unpleasant history, and Sharky is awaiting the arrival with a mix of resentment and dread (these are the emotions with which Sharky is most familiar, and he wears them the way old soldiers wear uniforms). The invitation was for a Christmas Eve poker game, and when the fellow arrives, he brings a stranger with him. The stranger is more eager than any of them for a good game of cards. His alias is Mr. Lockhart, his real name is Satan, and he has business here.
The game takes place, and the final pot is indeed the soul of one of the players. That player did something very, very bad some 25 years previously, and the devil bailed him out with the proviso that the two would meet again some day and play cards for these very stakes.
It is impossible to overstate how gorgeously McPherson realized all of this or how brilliantly the cast sells it. At no point during The Seafarer will one be jolted out of the story, point to something onstage, and say, "Oh, that there, that's acting." McPherson's dialogues rolled off his printer with the cadences of real speech, and the cast has picked up their rhythms, utterly subsuming themselves beneath the gorgeous cascades of the playwright's words. Blind alleys abound — McPherson is not the kind of writer who believes the gun on the mantle must necessarily fire before the audience goes home, and the play's long, freewheeling conversations have all the epic incoherence of life. For several minutes, the characters discuss somebody's niece, who "must be 15 or so now," and what she's up to. The niece doesn't matter a whit to the story: These are merely men talking as men talk, interrupting one another, drunkenly muddling their syntaxes, sometimes trailing off into silence.
You can learn a lot about the men of The Seafarer through all of this — the cast and director Richard Jay Simon cram as much emotive information into growls, stutters, and moments of quiet as McPherson packed into the words themselves. There are decades of intertwined history to be read in the way Dennis Creaghan, who plays blind, besotted Richard, hems and haws as he berates his brother, just as you can read years of self-loathing and repressed violence in the way Gregg Weiner, playing Sharky, casts his eyes down and takes it. Then Weiner might flick his gaze up for a moment, at the end of a particular word during one of Creaghan's particularly stinging rebukes, and you wonder: What is it about that word? Has something similar been said before? The ensemble performance in The Seafarer is a masterwork of tiny gestures, flowing together to create a world indistinguishable from our own. If you were standing onstage, beside these men, the uncomfortable intimacy couldn't feel any more real.
The astounding realism of the performance dissipates only with the appearance of Ken Clement, Lord Satan himself, whose arrival onstage is heralded by the smell of sulfur. He is monstrously merry, all thunderous belly laughs and grins so big they could swallow you. His joviality seems boundless, until he is left alone for a moment with his quarry (whose name I won't give away). Clement stares him down over the poker table, and his grin is suddenly frozen and awful, like a primitive tribe's carving of a cannibal god. His face reddens, then purples, and I suddenly realize that affable, Scotch-swilling Clement, with whom I have exchanged a dozen friendly post-show handshakes, is the scariest person I've ever seen. The visage couldn't have been any more frightening if his eyes had burst into flames — which, for a moment, I expected them to do.
I do not believe that McPherson wrote The Seafarer to bring about any particularly Christian feeling in his audience. Rather, I think McPherson — who is no stranger to alcoholic depression — wanted to say something about the power of guilt and how it can transform even the most innocuous, loving moment into a setting for pure surrealist terror. See this show, watch that look of Clement's, and then listen to his long, poetic description of what hell is really like. After you do, you will watch the ensuing hand of poker very nervously, and even the secular may find themselves praying for the intervention of grace.
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The visage couldn't have been any more frightening if his eyes had burst into flames.