Once in a great while, I see a show which, despite first class acting, direction and design, just doesn’t work for me.  This is the case with Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, now playing at the Geffen. The London Observer called The Seafarer “succinct, startling and eerie, and the funniest McPherson play to date,” and Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote about the Broadway production, “McPherson is quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation.” As someone who would prefer all his theatergoing to provoke wows, I wish I could understand their enthusiasm.

The Seafarer asks the audience to spend a couple of hours with a bunch of drunken Irishman.  The fivesome are “celebrating” Christmas Eve in the squalid home of grouchy 70something Richard Harkin (John Mahoney of TV’s Frasier) and Sharky, his sad-sack of a somewhat younger (and lately on-the-wagon) brother (Andrew Connolly). Crabby Richard has recently been blinded as the result of a fall into a dumpster, and all he can do throughout the evening is bitch and moan in a voice which grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Not doing too much better sightwise is Ivan Curry (Paul Vincent O’Connor), the Harkins’ holiday freeloader, who has lost his glasses somewhere and can’t see clearly enough to distinguish one hand of poker from another.

Stopping by for the evening of drinking and card playing is the considerably younger Nicky Giblin (Matt Roth), who has been dating Sharky’s former girlfriend.  (Either Sharky had been going with a much younger woman, or Nicky has a thing for older gals.) The quintet of heavy drinkers (with the possible exception of Sharky) is completed by Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin), a guest with a devil of a bone to pick with Sharky.

The first act’s combination of drink, prattle, and squalor failed to engage my interest.  Simply put, these are not people I’d care to spend a Christmas Eve with or any time at all.  Act Two was rather more engaging, but it was only in the final five to ten minutes that the final payoff (and it’s a terrific one) perked up my attention and then some.

Under Randall Arney’s direction, Connolly, Irwin, O’Connor, and Roth give richly-detailed performances, particularly Connolly and Irwin in their high-stakes scenes together. On the other hand, Mahoney’s strident complainer could benefit from the type of shadings his castmates give their characters—plus some remedial work with a dialect coach.

Takeshi Kata’s set captures the Harkin brothers’ dark cluttered home to a T, and features one of the most deliciously pitiful (and pitifully decorated) Christmas trees ever to grace a stage. Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting is suitably dark and mood-enhancing.  Janice Pytel’s costumes tell us much about each of the five characters.  Richard Woodbury’s sound design is fine as well.

An evening at the Geffen is so often a treat (the recent Time Stands Still was particularly gripping and memorable) that it is indeed disappointing for The Seafarer to have proven a very rare exception.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
April 23, 2009
Photos: Michael Lamont

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