In Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, Richard Harkin says of his brother, Sharky, “It’s a well-known fact in this whole area that my brother has that rare gift which is, unfortunately, the opposite of whatever the Midas touch was.”
Sharky, an alcoholic, can’t hold a job, picks fights he is sure to lose, has had multiple run-ins with the law, loses when he gambles, and suffers the humiliation of seeing his car being driven around town by an old friend who has stolen his girlfriend. And now he’s come home to live with his blind, demanding, unwashed brother who’s just full of ego-boosting affirmations like the one above. When Richard, in a typically insensitive moment, invites the girlfriend-stealing friend, Nicky, over to play poker on Christmas Eve, and Nicky brings along an acquaintance, things get even worse for Sharky. The apparent stranger, Mr. Lockhart, reminds Sharky that they met 25 years earlier and that it’s time for Sharky to make good on a debt. If you don’t know this play but are familiar with the author, you will correctly guess that Lockhart is not referring to an IOU that can be paid off with any worldly goods.
The Seafarer is part of a body of work that has earned the Irish playwright McPherson acclaim as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. Scena Theatre is presenting an excellent production of this black comedy at the H Street Playhouse.
Under the direction of Robert McNamara, Scena’s Artistic Director, the five-man cast is convincing as a group of heavy drinkers at an all-night poker game. Four of the players have known each other all their lives, and the four actors portraying them create just the right mix of camaraderie, affection, and resentment that exist among men who know all the triumphs and humiliations of each other’s history.
As Sharky, Eric Lucas broods, simmers, and occasionally boils over throughout the first act, skillfully portraying the joyless existence of a failure who has lost all hope of success. When Mr. Lockhart raises the stakes, Lucas makes the subtle transition from despair to desperation. Lucas comes off as too hardworking and competent early in the play and, at times, it’s hard to square it with his dismal history, which comes out as the play progresses.
Richard is the driving force of much of the play’s action. He orders Sharky around, dictates the social plans for Christmas, organizes raids on the neighborhood winos, and arranges the fateful poker game. Palka’s portrayal of Richard is at times hilarious. The aimless stare of his blindness adds to the wonderful deadpan with which he delivers some of his funniest and cruelest lines.
David Bryan Jackson gives an outstanding performance as the Mephistophelian Mr. Lockhart. He is at his best when he first arrives and privately reminds Sharky of their long-ago meeting. His friendly smile and gregarious personality make the evil he represents even more terrifying. Of the many reasons to see this play, the best might be the chance to watch Jackson’s Lockhart describe heaven and hell to Sharky.
Brian Mallon is perfect as Ivan, the old friend whose life seems to be an absolute mess. That Ivan’s miserable circumstances are not seen by the other characters as being in the same league as Sharky’s further illustrates the catastrophe that is Sharky’s life. More than any other member of this fine cast, Mallon becomes his character; you never catch him acting. The nearly literal manifestation of the blind-leading-the-blind metaphor that McPherson creates through Ivan and Richard’s poker partnership is a great source of comedy and character development in the hands of Mallon and Palka.
David Mitchell plays Nicky as a quirky innocent who does not seem to understand why Sharky might resent him. The Irish actor has such telling facial expressions and delivery, that I found myself laughing even when his brogue was too thick for me to understand. He greatly adds to the play’s physical comedy, walking around like some sort of hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne. The actor’s skill is such that we come to like him in spite of our natural tendency to root for Sharky.
Scena’s design team for The Seafarer is remarkable. Michael C. Stepowany’s single set is an excellent representation of a bachelor’s living room in a house outside of Dublin, or at least what I imagine that to be. Set dressing, including a faded sofa with a cushion in sideways and a Jesus portrait/electric candle that never works, add detail that enhances the set’s ring of truth. Similarly, Kevin Laughton’s props add to the play’s realism. Sound Designer Erik Trester deserves a nod for a particular ringtone from Nicky’s phone.
Although Sharky should have been dressed shabbier, to earlier establish him as the loser he is, Megan Holeva’s costumes were appropriate and had a degree of detail to match the set, the dressings, and the props. Marianne Meadows’ lighting design is so subtle as to be barely perceptible and yet so effective that we feel as if we’ve experienced dusk, midnight, and dawn along with the characters.
Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is a work of art and Scena’s team proves to be eminently worthy of tackling it. Go see this production!
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The Seafarer runs through May 20 at Scena Theatre at the H Street Playhouse – 1365 H St NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (703) 683-2824, or order them online.