'The Seafarer': Theater Review
Matthew Broderick stars in the off-Broadway Irish Rep revival of Conor McPherson's 2006 play about a Dublin card game featuring a demonic guest.
Matthew Broderick has expertly portrayed several character types in his long acting career. As a young man, he entertainingly conveyed charming recklessness, whether leading a Chicago parade in a singalong of "Twist and Shout" in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or bringing the world to the brink of nuclear destruction in WarGames. As Broderick has entered middle age, he's become emblematic of panicky insecurity, making him the perfect theatrical equivalent to Gene Wilder in the hit Broadway musical The Producers. The one thing he seems incapable of projecting is menace.
Unfortunately, that's the quality most necessary for his role as Mr. Lockhart in the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Conor McPherson's 2006 modern classic The Seafarer, first seen on our shores in a Broadway production the following year staged by the playwright. That's because the polite and soft-spoken Mr. Lockhart is, in fact, spoiler alert, the Devil himself, come to collect on a deal involving, you guessed it, a soul.
Not a lot happens before Mr. Lockhart shows up in the play, which is set in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Eve, although it takes a fairly long time for those things not to happen. We're introduced to such figures as Richard (Colin McPhillamy), recently blinded in a drunken accident; his younger brother Sharky (Andy Murray), newly resolved to go on the wagon; and their perennial house guest Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), nearly blind himself after losing his glasses. All three men are seriously hungover after their drunken revels of the night before, a state Richard would like to remedy with a dose of Irish coffee. Since Sharky doesn't have any coffee in the house, Richard happily settles for the whiskey.
As the men literally struggle to recover their equilibrium throughout the day, they continue to drink. The resulting banter will be familiar to anyone who's spent too much time in bars, especially of the Irish variety. Audience members may be tempted to partake themselves upon witnessing the rundown basement room in which the men hang out (designed in immaculately decrepit and cluttered fashion by Charlie Corcoran).
Later in the evening, there are two new arrivals: the rakish Nicky (Tim Ruddy), wearing what he claims is an expensive Versace leather jacket, and the dapperly dressed Mr. Lockhart. Although Sharky doesn't recognize him, it turns out that he and Lockhart have a history. Twenty-five years earlier, when they were sharing a jail cell after Sharky was arrested for killing a vagrant, they played a game of cards, the prize being Sharky going free if he won and Lockhart owning his soul if he lost. Sharky won the game but promised a rematch in the future should Lockhart ever desire it.
That time is now, and so the five men sit down for a game of poker in which the stakes are far higher for some of the players than others. It ends with the sort of twist that has long plagued the Devil, at least in his literary incarnations.
Director Ciaran O'Reilly, who has previously staged such McPherson plays as The Weir and Shining City (the latter also with Broderick), demonstrates a clear affinity for the playwright with this authentic-feeling and well-acted production. The ensemble delivers fully lived-in performances, mining their characters' drunken bombast and foolishness for all its comic worth; the sound effect of howling winds effectively conveys the terror that, for these characters at least, tends to accompany sobriety.
The problem, sad to say, is Broderick. I say sad because the actor is lending his considerable star power and box-office appeal to this well-regarded but modest off-Broadway theater company and is also making an admirable effort at stretching his acting muscles. But he lacks the physical presence to make Lockhart sufficiently chilling. Ciaran Hinds, who played the role in the Broadway production, could make your blood freeze with just an intense gaze. Broderick, on the other hand, projects the air of a slightly peeved insurance salesman inquiring about a delinquent payment. At one point, he attempts a sort of convulsive vocal barking that's clearly meant to be terrifying but instead makes you concerned he's having a seizure.
Yes, Lockhart is intended to be a comedic figure as well, such as when he gets tipsy and complains about the "stupid insect bodies" like the one he's recently assumed. "This fucker is left-handed!" he complains. Broderick handles those comic moments expectedly well. But without a true sense of danger emanating from the character, the play's dramatic urgency gets lost. It's hard to be intimidated by a poker-playing Devil who's so obviously bluffing.
Venue: Irish Repertory Theatre, New York
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Colin McPhillamy, Michael Mellamphy, Andy Murray, Tim Rudd
Playwright: Conor McPherson
Director: Ciaran O'Reilly
Set designer: Charlie Corcoran
Costume designer: Martha Hally
Lighting designer: Brian Nason
Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound designers: Ryan Rumery, M. Florian Staab
Presented by Irish Repertory Theatre