Playwright Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer" takes place on the kind of Christmas Eve too often ignored in the season of mandatory cheer — one filled with recrimination, booze and soul-crushing fears of what the future holds, in this life and the next. But for a certain species of bruised romantic-turned-skeptic, it also contains a powerful thread of redemption, or at least empathy. And in McPherson's world, those qualities are often the same thing.
This may well be McPherson's masterpiece to date — his latest, "The Night Alive," is now in a playwright-directed U.S. premiere at New York's Atlantic Theater Company, starring the original cast from London's Donmar Warehouse. I was enthralled by the much-lauded 2008 Christmas-season production of "The Seafarer" at Steppenwolf that boasted a powerhouse cast, including John Mahoney, Tom Irwin and Francis Guinan. But Matt Miller's staging for Seanachai Theatre Company can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that ensemble — though the characters too often, as Elvis Costello once sang, can't stand up for falling down.
Two-days-sober Sharky (Dan Waller) is the designated driver at the moldering Irish flat where the action unfolds, though his own job as a chauffeur for a real-estate developer has apparently fallen victim to his ill-advised affair with the boss' wife. His caviling brother, Richard (Brad Armacost) and hapless friend Ivan (Ira Amyx) are waking up from an epic boozer as the play begins. Since Richard lost his sight a few months earlier in a concussion and Ivan can't find his glasses, Sharky is literally the only one who can see what's going on. But his commitment to staying off the booze is sorely tested when flashy Nicky (Shane Kenyon), who is now shacked up with Sharky's ex, shows up with the devilishly insinuating Mr. Lockhart (Kevin Theis) for a card game with stakes far beyond penny-ante.
Theis' Satan-in-a-suit makes a better fit in some ways with the grungy world of Sharky and Richard than Irwin's self-possessed and L.A.-slick soul-claimer did at Steppenwolf. Theis plays Lockhart with the same hair-trigger temperament and hint of self-loathing that coats all these characters as surely as nicotine and years of assorted filth cling to the walls of Joe Schermoly's claustrophobic set. This paradoxically makes the ending even more believable. The devil is indeed in the details, and in a place where drunken carelessness reigns, the details are bound to get foggy. Even for Lucifer.
The intimacy of the Den space brings the squalor up so close you can practically smell the despair. But you can also see the struggle toward better angels — especially in Waller's beautifully understated but always on-point performance. In the past, Waller has mostly struck me as an actor who excels at playing some variant on a man-child. He still seems markedly younger than Armacost's seedy and comically rich Richard. But Waller's Sharky is a man caught between the muscled bravado of youth and the realization that he's set sail on the polluted waters of midlife without a pole star to guide him.
Kenyon has a ball with the oily Miller-swilling Nicky, but perhaps the real revelation here is Amyx's Ivan, whose burly and bearded presence at first calls to mind Zach Galifianakis in "The Hangover." What seemed like highly burnished bumbling comic relief in Alan Wilder's performance at Steppenwolf comes through here as a crucial underpinning to the moral conundrums of McPherson's script. In McPherson's world, people tend to take — and save — each other's lives more often by pure dumb accident than malice or self-sacrifice.
"The Seafarer," unlike McPherson's earlier works (including 2001's "Port Authority," now playing at Writers' Theatre) doesn't depend upon long, self-revelatory monologues. Instead, these shattered souls come through in snippets of argumentative dialogue and reminiscence, rendered with nearly perfect timing and nuance by Miller's riveting cast. Only Mr. Lockhart gets a longish speech, describing hell as a place of complete and total isolation. By contrast, McPherson's world of men locked in what W.H. Auden described in his poem "Atlantis" as "hard liquor, horseplay and noise" seems positively idyllic — a voyage well worth the pain sometimes inflicted by one's fellow travelers to the grave.