The Seafarer is a devil of a show

Superb performances and supernatural forces at American Stage.

There are two foci of action in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, currently showing in an often brilliant production at American Stage. The first and less interesting concerns the protagonist Sharky Harkin, his blind brother Richard, and their friends Ivan Curry and Nicky Giblin. When The Seafarer is about any two or more of these personages, the dialogue is wonderfully realistic, the relationships are credible and comic, but there's little development or change to hold our interest. The second focus — the one you don't dare ignore — is on Sharky and "Mr. Lockhart," the elegant, quiet-spoken poker player who just may be the Devil. Unfortunately, this storyline doesn't get half the stage time of the other one, so we find ourselves repeatedly waiting for the supernatural to return and redeem the natural. When it does, The Seafarer is riveting, breathtakingly suspenseful. When it doesn't, we still admire the play — the superb acting alone is enough to win our approval — but we can't help but feel impatient. When will another Sharky/Lockhart scene begin?

The story The Seafarer tells is about a day and a night in the life of Sharky et al, a time of carousing, brawling, drinking and card-playing in Baldoyle, a town north of Dublin. Many minutes are spent introducing us to the foibles and failings of each carefully drawn character. Sharky, we learn, is a questionably decent fellow who moves from job to job in no sensible order, and who was most recently employed as a chauffeur — until his relationship with his boss's wife got in the way. Now he's looking after his brother Richard, who's recently gone blind, but who doesn't let his infirmity interfere one jot with his hard drinking and his manipulation of that old softie Sharky. Richard's friend Ivan is another all-night partier, frightened of his justly censorious wife and relentlessly ingenious at finding alcohol. And Nicky is just the visitor Sharky doesn't want, especially since he's now living with Sharky's former sweetheart.

On Christmas Eve, Nicky brings to Sharky's house a stranger — Mr. Lockhart — whose elegance and gentility differ notably from the slovenliness and obstreperousness of the other men. When he and Sharky are alone — late in Act 1 — Lockhart turns threatening. He reminds Sharky of a meeting 25 years before, of a card game, of a favor. And now, he says, Sharky owes him a rematch; and the prize, long postponed, will be Sharky's soul. Can this be happening? Is Lockhart for real? And is there any way Sharky can defend himself against eternal damnation?

In the midst of all these mysteries, one thing is always clear: the acting in the production is astonishingly good, rising, in Richard Coppinger's case, to something like genius. Either Coppinger was born to play the role of Richard Harkin, or else his lofty talent, often remarked in these pages, has become stratospheric. If ever a man's personality could be called disheveled, Coppinger's Richard — dressed in an incredibly wrinkled suit — is that man. Wheedling and whining, barking and carping, Coppinger offers a virtuoso performance that's thrilling to witness.

Strong too are the dependable Christopher Swan as Sharky, Brian Webb Russell as the hapless Ivan, and Steve Garland as frenetic Nicky (though Garland failed to bring his Irish accent with him). Tom Nowicki's Mr. Lockhart deserves special notice. Dressed nattily (by Trish Kelly), he's deliberate and thoughtful where Sharky's other guests are wild and noisy. His gravitas, his meditative silences mark him as a stranger to this madhouse, and his cold, impassive face is as chilling as a County Clare winter. On Allen Loyd's confusing set — are we inside or outside? What's the point of the empty moat? — he and the others, perfectly directed by Todd Olson, conduct a spellbinding contest. And it's all the more fascinating because most of the participants don't have a clue as to what's transpiring.

Unfortunately, you have to wait out long sequences of rough-and-tumble realism to get to these captivating moments. Not everyone will have the patience; but if you do, I think you'll find that The Seafarer is that rarity among contemporary plays, not just a work about religion but a religious work. It's provocative and absorbing, and I can't think of anything else like it in the modern theater.

I'm delighted to have been there.