Conor McPherson is a playwright whose work I describe as exploring the Irish storytelling aesthetic. His Broadway break-through, The Weir, was merely five Irishmen (one woman, for the record) sitting in a pub telling ghost stories which they believed to be true. Shining City (which had an impressive production at the Huntington Theatre last season) also delves into the realm of phantasmagoria, but with a psychological spin. His latest work, The Seafarer, presented now through December 13 by Speakeasy Stage Company, turns the theme from life after death to exchanging life for death. In other words, McPherson takes on Faust.
Having seen The Weir on Broadway and Huntington's Shining City, I understand that what McPherson's work needs more than anything else is virtuosic acting. Typically, his plays only work because of those great performances that take innumerable resources to locate and attain. That said, I wonder if this work is suitable to the resources and availability of Speakeasy Stage, which has "fared" better in the last few seasons.
The plot of The Seafarer is much like McPherson's other work in that it revolves around a bunch of Irish men (no women, for the record) in a unit set talking. The Irish men, in this instance, are a rehabilitated alcoholic, Sharky, and his blind brother Richard; their enabling and victimized friend Ivan; and two late-arriving guests, the self-righteous Nicky and mysterious Mr. Lockhart. Most of Act I is spent on exposition that explains that Sharky used to be an alcoholic and that Richard and Ivan still are. Act II takes place on Christmas Day and follows a poker game including Nicky and Mr. Lockhart. Insert scrupulous detail and background information on each of the characters' lives with a love triangle somehow thrown in for dramatic effect, and you get the basic premise.
Since, as I said, McPherson's work relies on virtuosic acting, I think the best merit of the show is not plot synopsis, but the delivery. Unfortunately, there were few deliveries from this Christmas show. Bob Colonna as the blind brother Richard was most dissappointing after his marvelous turn in last season's The History Boys. His affected dialect, apparent struggling for lines, and poor physicality in stage combat and business distracted from the pathos of the character. Billy Meleady as the "lead" brother, Sharky, lacked any panache whatsoever and one wonders why he was cast at all except for his authentic accent. Derry Woodhouse as Mr. Lockhart delivers a performance I can only describe as antithetical to what I imagine McPherson intended in the production: subtlety and control. Instead, Mr. Woodhouse's performance ranged from the melodramatic to the soap operatic, which is really the same as saying it was over-the-top. Only Larry Coen as the humorous Ivan and Ciaran Crawford as the sexually-charged Nicky deliverd performances that both served the text and brought their characters to life. Whether this opinion is a critique of the acting or the writing, it is hard to say as the roles of Ivan and Nicky carry much less weight that the others. However, when your attention and empathy are diverted to the supporting characters, something is certainly amiss.
I do believe that this was a most valiant effort by director Carmel O'Reilly and her team. Ms. O'Reilly, artistic director of Sugan Theatre, has impressed Boston critics and audiences with her own productions of contemporary Irish plays. However, McPherson's work seems to be in a genre by itself; one that eschews theatricality for storytelling. Therefore, the Hollywood lighting techniques and dramatic delivery of this work runs contrary to subtle storytelling and complex relationship intended. I commend Speakeasy Stage Company for attempting such a difficult work, but I imagine the rest of their season will "fare" better.