The Seafarer -- Theater Review

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In the West Coast premiere of his new play about the horizons of life, Conor McPherson regales us with details of our mortal condition as short-lived wanderers.

He does so through an intimate Christmastime visit to two Dublin brothers (John Mahoney and Andrew Connolly), various friends and a suspiciously leprechauny kind of character (Tom Irwin). As often happens with such a theatrically rich cast, although occasionally a claustrophobic maudlin pall spreads over the proceedings, it usually is relieved, and in the nick of time, by explosions of Irish mirth and jollity.

There isn't really any story, just snatches of old love affairs, weak hearts and crimes. The nominal patriarch (Mahoney) of a loose group of professionally alcoholic mates, just managing to hold each other up, welcomes home his prodigal young brother (Connolly) and plays a joke on Beelzebub.

There are lots of retro Hollywood shades hovering over "Seafarer," like the indescribable glow of "The Bishop's Wife" or the elegant gloom of "Death Takes a Holiday." Like those great movies, McPherson brings together a cast of battered characters and, before our eyes, transforms them into a community whose hopes and, more openly, fears mirror our own.

McPherson also injects his own quirky brand of humor into the lilt of his prose. A drunkard announces, "If I can just beat Christmas, I can beat anything." And Irwin's brilliant soliloquy toward the end -- "Possibilities seem endless, and immortality seems strong" -- is a mesmerizing reflection on hell and the futility of recrimination.

To top off the long evening, there's a dynamite finale that consists of two hands of poker, which serve as the setup for an ingenious turnaround (though students of Jessica Fletcher might see it coming).

The production is precise and powerful. Mahoney makes an adorable curmudgeon: mercurial, with a smile to warm the hearts of young colleens and an angry side that takes him over as senility settles in. Like many great actors, everything he does seems to increase the sense of ensemble which, enhanced by director Randall Arney's willingness to let the play unfold patiently rather than whipping it along, strikes great chords in Act 2.

The rest of the cast matches Mahoney at every step. Connolly is as painfully and eloquently aware of his fate as the chess-playing knight in Bergman's "Seventh Seal." Irwin catches just the right baritone counterbalance to the proceedings, combining unexpected philosophical depth and dark sorrow with an endearingly devil-may-care attitude. Paul Vincent O'Connor makes a Falstaffian virtue out of drunken confusion, and Matt Roth hangs on for dear life to a minor role that could have been lost in the shuffle.

By evening's end, the story, characters and acting have combined seamlessly, almost cinematically, to produce some unforgettable moments in the theater.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through May 24).
Cast: Andrew Connolly, Tom Irwin, John Mahoney, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Matt Roth
Playwright: Conor McPherson
Director: Randall Arney
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Janice Pytel
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound designer: Richard Woodbury