If indulging in dark humor is your guilty antidote to a saccharin holiday season, Round House Theatre has a timely gift for you — Conor McPherson’s bittersweet dramedy The Seafarer. Directed by Ryan Rilette, Round House’s production of McPherson’s play turns Christmas Eve north of Dublin into a tale that ranges from hilarity to pathos and horror. It’s a tall order, but one that the Irish playwright executes with finely etched characters and acute sensitivity to both human aspirations and failings.
The play centers on James “Sharky” Harkin (Chris Genebach), a troubled alcoholic recently fired from his chauffeuring job and now returned to the coastal town of Baldoyle to care for his drunken brother Richard (Marty Lodge), who was blinded after a Halloween run-in with a dumpster. The brothers are already at odds. The grandiloquent Richard’s cutting remarks and incessant demands infuriate Sharky, who is making a bold attempt to stay dry for the holidays. So much for family.
Added to the mix is Ivan Curry (Michael Glenn), a friend so addled by drink that he can’t quite find his way home. He resides temporarily on the Harkins’ couch. Seriously myopic, Ivan has misplaced his glasses and spends most of the play feeling his way around his friends’ living room. The flashy Nicky Giblin (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), now in possession of Sharky’s former girlfriend as well as his car, is invited by Richard for a festive round of pre-Christmas poker. He shows up with a mysterious guest — the suave Mr. Lockhart (Marcus Kyd) — whose impeccable suit is a sharp contrast to the lads’ slovenly attire.
Catching a moment alone with Sharky as the others rush outside to beat back unseen winos in the laneway, Lockhart reveals his identity and intent. The two met 25 years before, in jail, when Sharky was arrested for killing a vagrant during a drunken brawl. Winning a poker game against Lockhart, Sharky gained his freedom and kept his soul. The proviso was that Lockhart would have another opportunity to play Sharky again in the future. Now the devil incarnate was back, intent on winning this round and dragging Sharky through a hole in the wall down to Hell.
McPherson’s work provides characters rich opportunities to play off one another. The Seafarer brims with grudging camaraderie between the dissolute drinking buddies, offset by the solitary, self-contained Lockhart. This cast is at its best in the second act, dominated by the poker game. They rage, bluster, and gloat through several hands. For all their bluff, however, three of them never realize that the other two are playing not as a Christmas Eve diversion but for eternal stakes.
While some of McPherson’s wily dialogue was compromised by overwrought Irish brogues, the characters’ body language and stage movements were unerring. Sharky’s anger and frustration, Richard’s reckoning with his blindness, Ivan’s haplessness, Nicky’s bravado, and Mr. Lockhart’s calculated cool were wonderfully expressed. So too was Lockhart’s bitter melancholy. There’s nothing fun about his wretched “life” of constant loneliness.
Scenic Designer Andrew R. Cohen’s splendid set could rightfully be called a sixth character in the play for all it tells us about Richard and Sharky’s dissipated lives. Peeling paint cascades from the Harkin home’s ceiling and walls. Richard sinks into a worn-out easy chair covered by homely knitted blankets. Sharky half-heartedly tends an anemic fire that will never warm anything. The walls sport homages to both pub life and the Virgin Mary. A desultory Christmas tree leans into a forgotten corner. The brothers could not even bother to place it in a proper stand. Lighting Director Max Doolittle bathes the stage in a milky, yellowy light that reminds one of nothing so much as dingy cataracts.
The set is complemented by Ivania Stack’s wonderfully expressive costumes. Richard is wrapped in layers of odd-fitting clothes. Ivan is lost in a dull, oversized cardigan. Nicky swans around the Harkins’ living room in a blingy Versace jacket he claims is the real thing (no way). Lockhart shape-shifts into a three-piece suit, perfect for his venture into the outer world.
No one on stage (except Sharky, briefly) is without a drink for more than a minute. Their incessant consumption brings with it both willed amnesia and intentional cruelty. Sharky barely remembers his previous encounter with Lockhart. Nicky boasts that he immediately frittered away previous gambling wins rather than letting his wife spend his profits. McPherson knows of what he speaks. He’s open about his own struggles with alcohol and once worried that he would have nothing left to write about when he finally stopped drinking. Fortunately, that was not the case. The Seafarer was first produced in 2006, five years after he quit.
The ending of this deeply affecting play will strike some as oddly ebullient and redemptive. But heck, it’s Christmas. Let’s have a little cheer.
Running Time: Two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.
The Seafarer plays through December 31, 2023, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46–$83), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here, accessibility here, and Free Play program for students here.)
The playbill for The Seafarer is online here.
COVID Safety: Round House Theatre no longer requires that audience members wear masks for most performances. However, masks are required for the following performances: December 26 (evening) and December 30 (matinee).