The Seafarer

Ron Reed (foreground), Tim Dixon and John Emmet Tracy Credit: Emily Cooper
Ron Reed (foreground), Tim Dixon and John Emmet Tracy (right)
Credit: Emily Cooper

At Pacific Theatre until March 29

Those who know Ron Reed, artistic director of Pacific Theatre, will be astonished at how he has transformed himself for his role in The Seafarer. In it, his hard drinking Irish character Richard punctuates almost everything he says with the f-word and he’s so filthy, so unwashed, you’d swear you can smell what undoubtedly are Richard’s frequently pissed-in trousers. Richard is almost blind, needs help from his equally boozy friend Ivan to get to the bathroom; and from the noise and bitching we hear from offstage, we can only imagine what kind of mess he’s making all over the floor. Reed, with his shirttails out and constantly hitching up those disgusting trousers, has never looked so dissipated.

Written by Connor McPherson, a contemporary Irish writer/director, the title relates to an Old English poem of the same name in which the hardships of seafaring are a metaphor for the challenges facing Christians. In McPherson’s play, four of the characters do not appear to be Christians but the fifth is definitely the Devil. Grungily realistic in Act 1, the play moves into magic realism in Act 2.

John Emmet Tracy as Sharky Credit: Emily Cooper
John Emmet Tracy as Sharky
Credit: Emily Cooper

In The Seafarer, Sharky (John Emmet Tracy) has given up a good limo-driving job in County Clare to take care of his aging, alcoholic brother Richard in Dublin. There has obviously been a big binge the night before the action of the play. Drew Facey’s set is littered with bottles, garbage and overturned chairs; Richard’s friend Ivan (Tim Dixon) has been so drunk he hasn’t been able to make it home and he has lost his glasses. It’s morning but the whiskey – what’s left of it – starts being consumed all over again. To hell with breakfast, Richard and Ivan head off to the off-sales to restock. Sharky, also an alcoholic, has been dry for two days and he finds himself amidst a veritable ocean of booze and boozers that only gets worse with the arrival of Nicky (Andrew McNee), now living with Sharky’s ex-wife – a match-up that enrages Sharky.

Sharky, we discover, has a criminal past and in Act 2 it catches up with him when he finds himself in a game of poker with Richard, Ivan, Nicky and dapper Mr. Lockhart who has come along with Nicky. It doesn’t take much to realize Mr. Lockhart isn’t earthly and he’s out to collect on a Faustian bargain he made with Sharky many years ago.

Directed by Anthony F. Ingram, these are five superb performances. Tracy, as Sharky, is quiet and tense to the breakpoint as Richard, increasingly drunk and belligerent, orders him around. Dixon plays Ivan as a woolly-headed drunk, somewhat remorseful about his wife and kids. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s not home but he stays for the card game anyway. McNee’s Nicky is, on the surface, genial but there’s menace here and it has everything to do with Sharky and his ex-girlfriend.

Andrew McNee, John Innes, Tim Dixon and John Emmet Tracy Credit: Emily Cooper
Andrew McNee, John Innes, Tim Dixon and John Emmet Tracy
Credit: Emily Cooper

When Mr. Lockhart walks in, the candle Sharky has lit to celebrate Christmas Eve flickers out. And he goes into shock when Christmas music is played. Innes is slick and suave in Lockhart’s pretense that, “it’s only a game” and Innes seems to flinch at the mere thought of touching anything in the room for fear of contamination.

The poem, The Seafarer, ends on a hopeful note of redemption. I’m not certain there’s redemption here, merely a second chance for Sharky, which, with luck and by going back on the wagon, he’ll grasp and move on.

I confess to a bias with this play and others like it. Raised with an alcoholic in the family, I don’t find drunks entertaining and I find it almost impossible to find charm in them; I can’t help but think of the families. While McPherson isn’t asking me find them charming, The Seafarer wins over audiences with three Irishmen who are, as we say, ‘three sheets to the wind’, to use a sailing reference.

And the conclusion is an unabashed deus ex machina (a person or thing that is suddenly introduced to solve what has seemed insoluble). It’s funny, it solves a problem, gets Sharky off a very nasty hook (if you believe in satanic intervention) but will he take advantage?

The Seafarer won lots of award including the Olivier Award for Best Play in 2006 but I found it long and, in spite of wonderful performances and deft direction, not completely satisfying. I was grateful that Luke Ertman’s soundscape was unobtrusive and never broke into jolly Celtic fiddling which would have been completely inappropriate. No leprechauns. No Irish pipes and drums. But lots and lots and lots of Irish whiskey.


John Innes and John Emmet Tracy Credit: Emily Cooper
John Innes and John Emmet Tracy
Credit: Emily Cooper