Conor McPherson's current Broadway offering, produced at London's National Theatre last year, will no doubt become known as the Irish play in which a man must win a poker game against the devil to save his soul. But I'll remember it fondly for two other characters- a couple of colorful, hard-drinking Irishmen who are played to perfection by Jim Norton and Conleth Hill.
Norton gives one of the season's must-see performances as Richard Harkin, a crusty old coot who is now blind because he fell into a dumpster at Halloween. Dependent on his taciturn brother Sharky (David Morse) to care for him in his suburban Dublin home, Richard still has a zest for life and a taste for whiskey. Getting into the holiday spirit on Christmas Eve, he uses expressions like it'll be grand and says, We'll get nice and Christmassy-that is, nice and drunk.
Sharky, who spent time in prison due to a violent bar brawl, is off the drink. So the role of drinking buddy falls to Ivan Curry (Hill), who sleeps off his benders at Richard's house and can't remember where he left his car. Sporting a comb-over and a too-tight warm-up jacket, Hill (Stones in His Pockets) provides near-constant comic relief and a few brilliant pratfalls. Norton, meanwhile, makes Richard more than just another jovial Irish drunk. The actor-who won the Olivier Award for the role- gives Richard an irrepressible spirit as well as a poignancy that stems from his diminished capacities.
McPherson's early plays, such as The Weir and St. Nicholas, were comprised largely of monologues. Shining City, produced on Broadway in 2006, combined monologues and dialogue. With The Seafarer, the 36-year old proves he can write an old-fashioned play in real time without relying on monologues.
The only character with a substantial monologue is the mysterious visitor Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), who arrives for drinks and a game of cards with Richard's young pub buddy Nicky Giblin (Sean Mahon). Lockhart, the devil in a natty suit, wants Sharky's soul even more than a pot of euros. Hinds does a nice job with his monologue (about the nature of hell), but he's even better when he cringes as the others drunkenly croon Ave Maria. McPherson-whose plays frequently involve ghosts and other supernatural phenomena-unobtrusively works in sin, redemption, and forgiveness. And along with shabby furniture and a spindly tree, Rae Smith's set includes Catholic touches such as an illuminated picture of Jesus and a welcome candle in the window.
McPherson, a lapsed Catholic, and former alcoholic who directed the production, clearly knows all about Catholic guilt and high-spirited Irishmen. He also establishes a touching, complicated relationship between Richard and Sharky ( though Morse looks too young to be Norton's brother). Even the buffoonish Ivan is a believable, lovable character. The plot may center on a Christmastime date with the devil, but it's the quintessentially Irish characters-and the priceless performances by Norton and Hill-that makes The Seafarer a delightful, at times transporting, experience.