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The Seafarer at Merrimack Rep is a Sea of Surprises

November 1, 2009

Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is currently one of the top 10 most produced plays in America–and after garnering a Tony nomination for Best Play last year, why shouldn’t it be?  It didn’t win (the prize went to August: Osage County by Tracy Letts–but really, any of the four plays nominated in 2008 could have walked away with the Tony), but that clearly hasn’t stunted Seafarer‘s popularity.  With powerful dialogue and memorable characters, playwright McPherson tells a touching story that constantly surprises–and despite its morbid namesake (an Old English poem so sorrowful you’ll want a drink after you read it), it’s funny as hell.  Literally.

The play’s popularity has brought it for a second time to the Boston area, this time at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell (SpeakEasy Stage produced it last year).  If you don’t have a car, getting to Merrimack Rep probably sounds like a pain.  But I decided to make the trek, carless and all–and I am so glad I did.   Artistic Director Charles Towers brings unique vision to the play, and his strong cast lights up the stage, backdropped by an incredible set.  Talent marks Merrimack Rep’s production of The Seafarer, which is mostly hindered, strangely enough, by the Tony Award-nominated script. 

It is Christmas Eve in Dublin and James “Sharky” Harkin, after swearing off a debauched life of drinking, has moved back home to take care of his blind and aging brother Richard.   Over an evening of holiday revelry, freely flowing alcohol, and a Poker game with the highest of stakes, Sharky finds himself seeking redemption, and must contend with demons both inside and out in order to get it.

The Seafarer is a tale of mythic proportions, though it takes a long time to get there.  If I showed you my little Moleskine notebook (which I bought just to bring to shows and take notes), you’d see a whole page and a half of notes about the first act, and a whopping two notes for the second. This says a lot about the show’s arc; the first act, while skillfully performed, is really just boring.  Rather than attributing this to Merrimack Rep’s production, I have to blame it on the script itself.  While a little exposition is necessary in any play, McPherson spends nearly an entire act setting up the play’s central conflict.  A lot of amusing business occurs, and we are given strong hints about Sharky’s past in passing, but after nearly an hour of “business” I was definitely getting restless.  I actually wrote in my notebook, “What is this play about?” Towards the end of the first act, an event occurs that changes the very essence of what the play has been thus far, and from then on it charges boldly forward towards a chilling and powerful climax. The second act is entirely intoxicating and edge-of-your-seat gripping, powerfully written and powerfully performed by Merrimack Rep, and almost makes up for the blasé first act–almost. While the first act’s triviality is a lovely juxtaposition to the second act’s severity, it is not enough to forgive the grueling amount of time spent on minutiae.

Don’t get me wrong.  The play is wonderful, and absolutely deserves that Tony nomination. McPherson’s dialogue is clever and realistic, each of his characters speaking in his own distinct voice; some lines are so beautiful in their poetry it makes you want to weep. The play’s situation expertly straddles the line between tragedy and comedy. The Harkin brothers’ life is mildly upsetting and totally pitiful, but their antics are so ridiculous and so full of truth that you can’t help but laugh. When the play is at its darkest, there are several riotous moments, expertly placed, that give the audience a well-needed laugh. Even with this fantastic writing, McPherson leaves a lot of loose ends. Many elements are introduced in the first act that don’t get a big enough payoff at the end.  Then there’s the matter of that excruciatingly long first act.  But, I’ve spent too long on the script; this is not intended to be a critique of the play, but of Merrimack Rep’s performance of it.

The Seafarer calls for a cast of five strong male actors, each with a strong personality and a strong Irish accent.  Merrimack Rep’s line up of company veterans is more than up to the challenge. With incredible vocal and physical choices, each actor creates a totally complete character, marked by truthfulness and individuality.    Despite the characters’ shared accents, each one possesses a distinct voice, as well as distinguishing mannerisms.  Each character is his own man, and it is clear that the actors have down their homework.

In Sharky, David Adkins creates a simultaneously pitiful and wildly sympathetic protagonist. He swaggers about the stage with gentle laziness, speaking with a softening lilt in his voice. In his interactions with others, Adkins’ Sharky possesses an enduring patience that makes him immediately likable and able to relate to; it is clear that he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing in life, and who can’t relate to that?

Adkins’ chemistry with Gordon Joseph Weiss, who plays Sharky’s brother Richard Harkin, is extraordinary. Weiss’ wildness contrasts beautifully with Adkin’s weary demureness, and even through the characters’ constant fighting, the actors skillfully portray their strong brotherly love.

While Adkins leads the cast with tenderness, Weiss steals the show. This is not really a surprise; the character of Richard won The Seafarer‘s Broadway production a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor, so it’s clear that the character allows an actor to shine–and Weiss does shine. With wildly imaginative choices and stellar comedic timing, Weiss dominates the stage, filling the first act with hilarity and grounding the second in touching sincerity.

The rest of the cast is equally good. Jim Frangione’s Ivan is kind and genuine, likable despite his flaws, and Allyn Burrows’ Nicky defies the stereotype set up for him, proving a fun addition to the evening’s events.  As Mr. Lockhart, Mark Zeisler is powerful and unpredictable, deftly contrasting erratic movement with stillness, apathy with passion, and calm with rage to create a truly frightening individual.

As Zeisler utilizes contrasts in his characterization of Mr. Lockhart, so does director Charles Towers in his vision of the show. Barrages of sound end suddenly in silence; a stage full of movement falls suddenly still.  Towers uses these remarkable contrasts to highlight more subtle (and important) character interactions, a technique that results in breathtaking tableaus and gives the production an epic quality.  I may be making a mental leap here, but I can only assume that Towers coached his actors to incorporate contrast into their performances, which probably helped them to create such distinctive characters.  If this is true, Towers is a truly visionary director who understands the intricacies of the stage.

With his preoccupation with contrasts, however, Towers neglects a few basic staging rules. While Mr. Lockhart’s stillness is powerful, he spends most of the play standing or sitting in one position, his face poised in such a way that it is difficult for half of the audience to see him. I happened to be in that half of the audience; I didn’t think much of Zeisler as an actor for a good 10 minutes until he moved and I could suddenly see his face–what a difference! There are a few other details like this that detract from the play, but they are so minor that it’s not even worth it to mention them.

An incredible set caps this already wonderful production. As the audience enters the theatre, the stage stands curtainless to reveal a bare-bones basement apartment with stairs leading to an upper level.  Unidentified stains soil the cheap carpet; tattered furniture haphazardly decorates the room; a single portrait of Jesus Christ hangs on the otherwise bare wall; a tiny Tiffany lamp dangles out of place at the center of the ceiling.  Trash, mostly liquor bottles, litters the floor and furniture, and chairs stand about the space in no clear pattern, some having fallen (or been kicked) over.  A pitiful Christmas tree wilts on an end table.    Despite its sparseness, the set has clearly been designed and crafted with intricate detail.  It takes a temperate hand to make a room appear lived in without making it seem deliberately or falsely so, and  I have to give serious props to scene designer Bill Clarke for creating a realistic, truthful playing space.

The problems I had with the first act of Merrimack Rep’s The Seafarer prevented me when first asked from describing the play as “great.” After reviewing my notes and writing this review, I have to say that Charles Towers’ insight and his cast’s abilities really do make this production a great one. I’ll tell the truth; I wasn’t really considering heading back to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in the near future, just because it is sort of a pain to get out there without a car, and none of the other plays this season immediately strike my fancy.  But my experience of The Seafarer makes me excited to see what else the company is capable of.  Also, they treated me like gold while I was there.  So, you’ll probably see me back.

You can catch The Seafarer through November 8th at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.  Visit their website for more information or ticket purchases.

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