THEATER REVIEW: Performance Network’s “The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson

It’s an old tale told many times – a man (almost always a man) battles with the devil for possession of his soul.  This time the man is James “Sharky” Harkin, and the setting is Baldoyle, North Dublin, Ireland on Christmas Eve.  Sharky opens the play by coming into the living room area of what appears to be a row house.  The remnants of a large drinking binge are apparent everywhere, but Sharky does not appear to be worse for the wear.

As he cleans he comes across his brother, Richard, who has been covered by the rug on the floor, where he spent the night.  Richard is blind because, as it is eventually revealed to us, of a dumpster diving accident in the past year.  Sharky has moved back into the house to care for his brother and to try to get his life back in order.  Sharky has come back from the south of Ireland.  He was not able to get a job on the boats there because of his reputation, but he did have a job as a chauffer, where he put his job at risk by getting involved with his employer’s wife. 

Even in the short time that he has been back, Sharky has gotten himself into trouble by making a inopportune comment to a gang of teens hanging outside of a pub, for which he was rewarded with a beating that caused a nose injury.

All this trouble has finally caused Sharky to want to change, starting with stopping drinking.  We find out that Sharky has been sober for two days here at the start of the play.  This is a great annoyance to Richard, who would prefer to have a companion in his copious consumption of alcohol.  Fortunately for Richard, he has a backup for that role in Ivan, who stumbles down the stairs in the grips of a serious hangover.  Ivan was the other drinker with Richard the night before, and in the stupor of drunkenness, lost his glasses.

Sharky waits on Richard extremely attentively, for which he is repaid by Richard by endless demands and putdowns.  Regardless of whatever Sharky may have done in the past, he earns the audience’s sympathy for taking such good care of his brother, who appears to be incredibly ungrateful for the sacrifices being made on his behalf.

Having set that as background, the core conflict of the play unfolds when Sharky, Richard and Ivan return from some Christmas Eve shopping, which consists mostly of alcohol for whatever visitors may drop by.  The visitor that does drop by is Nicky, who is particularly irritating to Sharky, as Nicky is now living with Sharky’s ex-wife, Eileen.

Nicky has brought with him a mysterious friend, Mr. Lockhart.  Mr. Lockhart (he is never given a first name) is a distinguished man, noticeable by his very nice topcoat, with a suit and tie underneath.  When a group of winos that hang out around the house cause Richard, Ivan and Nicky to leave the house to chase them away.  Mr. Lockhart reveals himself to be the devil himself.  He was in prison with Sharky twenty-five years ago when Sharky beat up a homeless man.  Unbeknownst to Sharky, the man died.  This is news to Sharky because while in prison, Sharky and the devil played poker and Sharky winnings were for the devil to arrange for him to be let go and not have to think about it again.  Now the devil has returned for a return game where the stakes will be Sharky’s soul.

The poker game ensues and the inevitable consequential hand arises.  Sharky faces down his fate with what he believes to be a great hand.  I won’t reveal the outcome, other than to say Mr. McPherson’s moral of the play appears to be that we cannot save ourselves, but must rely on others.

Performance Network has done another solidly professional job in this production.  Anything directed by Malcolm Tulip will assuredly be in solid hands.  The cast produces believable Irish accents, at least to this Midwestern ear.  Aaron Alpern as Sharky was the strongest of the cast and his one-on-one scenes with Richard McWilliams as Mr. Lockhart were tense and well constructed.  Hugh Maguire was also strong, but on a couple of occasions, he stumbled over lines which interrupted the tight flow of the dialogue.

However, one complaint about the play is the same one that gets made every time some playwright or screenwriter wants to include a dramatic poker scene in a play or movie.  There is always the time when the villain bets more than the hero has, and another character say “I guess if you can’t call, then you’ll have to fold”.  The hero then puts something else of value in the pot like a ring, a watch, or a soul.  This is NOT how poker is played.  If someone has bet everything they have on the table, then a side pot is created for those that continue betting beyond that.  The player who is “all-in” is not shut out of the hand and may not bring extra money on the table during a hand.

Additionally, the climatic poker scene always has some phenomenally improbable combination of huge hands facing off against each other (In fact, in an earlier hand, one player announced a full house of “kings over fives” to be beaten by a full house of “kings over sevens”.  I wouldn’t want to play in that game as there are at least six kings in that deck.).  Four of a kind beating four of a kind beating yet a different four of a kind just does not happen.  In true poker, many hands are won with more moderate holdings of two pair or three of a kind.

That complaint aside, Performance Network keeps putting on great shows.  “The Seafarer” runs through July 18.  They have announced a partial lineup for the 2010-2011 season, including “The Drowsy Chaperone” and August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”.  Go see a show or become a subscriber at Performance Network’s website.

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One thought on “THEATER REVIEW: Performance Network’s “The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson

  1. Hi Mark,
    Sounds like a good play. You’re only mostly correct about the “all in” method of playing poker. The method you described is the more modern method, but it was not unheard of to play the way you are describing in the 19th century (both methods were in style then based on various house rules). The one used in plays is obviously more dramatic, and so has stuck around just for that.
    -Ben

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