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Sympathy for the Devil

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  November 24, 2008

The production at the Huntington lacks the mesmeric rush the combination of brainpower, rock outbursts, and fiery acting brought to the original Royal Court Theatre production that opened in London in 2006 and transferred to Broadway a year ago. But it's thoughtful and smart and does handsome service to a mighty work. Rock and roll is one thing, but you won't catch me saying it's only Tom Stoppard but I like it.

The Seafarer is Conor McPherson's second play set on Christmas Eve, and neither is anyone's idea of The Nutcracker. The 2000 Dublin Carol centers on an alcoholic undertaker confronting the wreckage of his life. Rooted in Celtic folklore and awash in Irish whiskey, the 2008 Tony-nominated The Seafarer, seen here in an expertly acted area premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through December 13), continues the 37-year-old Irish writer's defiance of Dickens — McPherson's spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and possibly Future come in a bottle. Yet the dramatist's claim that his latest work is "his most optimistic play yet" is not without credence.

Named for an Old English poem, The Seafarer is set in a dingy house in a moribund suburb of North Dublin, to which James "Sharky" Harkin has returned to care for his newly blinded brother, Richard, whose affliction does not keep him from smelling out a bottle (or stinking out the house). Struggling to stay off the drink, swilling Coke while fussing about the home's subterranean parlor cleaning up empties and worse, Sharky is as much a loser fleeing his latest misadventure as a male Florence Nightingale. And his ward is like something out of Betty Ford's, with slow-witted if good-hearted marital fuck-up Ivan Curry rounding out the dysfunctional family. But bombed, floundering business-as-usual is interrupted when Nicky Giblin, whom Richard has drunkenly invited over for poker despite Nicky's having appropriated Sharky's one-time girlfriend, shows up with a well-dressed stranger who has a high-stakes game in mind. Whether this guy's identity is merely a figment of Sharky's guilty imagination is up to you; to McPherson, he is indeed the Devil, star of a modern morality tale based on the Irish myth of the Hellfire Club, a posh 18th-century entity whose membership saw Beelzebub show up to play cards.

Súgán Theatre Company founder and jack of all things Celtic Carmel O'Reilly directs the SpeakEasy staging of what may be monologue-specialist McPherson's best ensemble work, ably balancing its aimless, unsanitary male infantilism and scrofulous humor with its booze-fueled explosions and bleak hope. Wiry Billy Meleady retains your focus as Sharky, tensely contemplating a number that may be up, despite the flamboyant competition from rubber-faced Larry Coen's hapless Ivan, Bob Colonna's commanding yet quixotic Richard, and Ciaran Crawford's cool yet cowed Nicky. Holding the monologue fort, the imposing if exemplarily pleasant Derry Woodhouse, a suave Satan in the borrowed "insect body" of a fellow human, delivers a riveting account of Hell as a cramped cubicle of self-loathing. I say give the saccharine-coated holiday chestnuts a rest in favor of this teaming pint of pickled redemption served without the big turkey at the end.

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Related: Year in Theater: Staged right, Blackbird at SpeakEasy, Sound Czech, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Entertainment, Music, American Conservatory Theater,  More more >
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 See all articles by: CAROLYN CLAY

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