Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 49
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
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(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

IRISH INTRIGUE: Richard (David Schramm, left) and Nicky (Matthew Boston) enjoy a drunken Christmas Eve poker game with a sinister otherworldly visitor, in George Street Playhouse’s production of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” playing through December 14 in New Brunswick.

A Poker-Playing Devil Delivers Christmas Eve Surprises in “The Seafarer,” Irish Comic Drama in New Brunswick

Donald Gilpin

An anonymous eighth century Anglo Saxon poem provides Dublin-born playwright Conor McPherson with the title of The Seafarer, currently playing in a captivating revival at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. In the poem the title character describes, in translation, his plight:

He knows not
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea
Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles
While hail flew past in showers.

The four alcohol-sodden, derelict characters of Mr. McPherson’s play, settled into a filthy basement living room for a Christmas Eve poker game where they are joined by a mysterious satanic visitor, are all “lost at sea.” They are failures in their careers and in their personal and family relationships. Like the hapless seafarer, though they don’t know it until later in the evening, they are on a harrowing journey — a spiritual journey, with the devil himself dealing the cards.

The Seafarer, which first played at the National Theatre in London where it won the Olivier Award two years ago, then at the Booth Theatre on Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony Award just over a year ago, is an Irish tale of contrasts: of dark and light, of blindness and vision, of isolation and connection, of despair and the hope of redemption, of drunkenness and vibrant life, of squalid realism and miraculous surrealism.

Directed by Anders Cato, with a top-notch ensemble of seasoned veterans, this production is funny, moving and thoroughly engaging from start to finish, despite its more than two-and-one-half-hour (including intermission) running time. With its grim setting, drunken characters, violence and strong language, The Seafarer is not exactly traditional holiday entertainment, but it’s worth the trip to New Brunswick, even if you saw the Broadway version. While this revival lacks the authenticity provided by the playwright’s direction and the predominantly native Irish cast in the New York production, Mr. Cato’s Seafarer presents a more lucid and accessible experience, exuberantly presided over by the relentlessly spirited David Schramm.

Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” will run through December 14 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. Call 732-246-7717 or visit for show times, tickets and further information.

Mr. Schramm (from TV’s Wings) as Richard Harkin takes on Falstaffian proportions here, as he leads the drunken Christmas Eve celebrants. He is overflowing with the virtues and vices of humanity. Too large, too drunk, and blind from recently having fallen into a dumpster, he is unable to move without the assistance of a large walking stick and often the assistance of one of the other characters. Self-pitying, manipulative, constantly finding an excuse to take another drink, Richard dominates the proceedings from his chair on right center stage. He is funny, loud, foul-mouthed, and lovable, and, in his sheer good-hearted exuberance, more than a worthy counterbalance to the icy, calculating satanic visitor Mr. Lockhart (Robert Cuccioli).

The action of the play takes place in Richard’s shabby north Dublin basement living room, devoid of color, decoration or sign of prosperity, except for a tiny tattered Christmas tree. Richard’s younger (early fifties) brother Sharky (David Adkins) has recently returned from a job in County Clare to help take care of Richard (who is in his sixties). Edgy and tense, Sharky is full of anger. He carries injuries from a recent pub fight, obvious psychological wounds from a troubled past, and an alcohol problem that he struggles with throughout the play.

The brothers are striking in their contrasts — one lean, overwrought, tortured by his past, suffering through every moment; the other larger than life, corpulent, oblivious, determined to squeeze joy, camaraderie, and celebration out of every minute of his existence. Mr. Adkins successfully and sympathetically embodies this distressed figure and his travails. The pain is visible. Mr. Schramm meanwhile throws himself into the part of Richard with obvious delight and extraordinary energy.

It is Sharky who becomes the central character as Mr. Lockhart and Nicky (Matthew Boston), one of Richard’s friends who has taken up with Sharky’s ex-girlfriend, arrive, and Lockhart, in a private moment with Sharky, stakes his claim: “I want your soul … you’re coming through the old hole in the wall with me tonight.” Ivan (William Hill), an old friend, thrown out of his own house by his wife and children, too drunk and too blind to leave without his lost glasses, has been staying over, but looks forward to a reconciliation with his family that Richard promises to arrange. These are memorable, deftly detailed characters, utterly realistic in their affectations, foibles, and frustrations.

Mr. Cuccioli (Tony nominee for Jekyll and Hyde) is a formidable Mephistopheles, displaying a smooth, polished detachment, interspersed with brief moments of fury where his true nature blazes to the surface in frightening displays of violence and wrath. His elegance in manner and attire — an expensive three-piece suit with scarf, overcoat and red tie — sets him apart from his unkempt adversaries and their squalid surroundings.

The meticulously vivid set design by R. Michael Miller, lighting by Joe Saint, and costumes by Jennifer Moeller provide the perfect realistic background for these passionate characters on their Christmas Eve journey to escape self-destruction and move beyond the loss, the failures, and the desolation. It’s an exciting and entertaining trip, unobtrusively filled with rich Christian symbolism.

In the dedication of his play, Mr. McPherson refers to “the sun at Newgrange,” a 5000-year-old Irish monument, where, on the day of the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, the sun shines directly down into the tomb and lights it up. “I wanted to write a play that had that moment, darkest day of the year, where at the end the light comes in.” Amidst the squalor, dereliction and despair of the world of the five characters of The Seafarer, the light — in the form of hope, friendship, brotherhood, and the chance for personal redemption — does indeed appear. It’s a powerful infusion of the Christmas spirit — odd, surprising and all the more welcome for being so.

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