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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The chance of a Christmas miracle for the motley crew of problem drinkers and eager gamblers wallowing in vice as that holy holiday approaches is about as slim as the branches on the tiny, artificial tree relegated to a corner of the oddly constructed home where “The Seafarer” unfolds. But like a winning hand when the chips are down, miracles have been known to happen — and not always to the most saintly among us.
Wearing a scowl so deeply embedded it could pass for a birthmark, James “Sharky” Harkin spends the play’s opening moments (and a good deal of the following ones) picking up after the boozy indiscretions of his recently blinded older brother, Richard, who barks orders and hurls insults from a ragged armchair he occupies as if it were a throne. Having arrived back in this downscale coastal settlement north of Dublin City after the latest in a series of employment opportunities gone awry, dutiful caretaker Sharky — two days sober and starting to show it — attends to his domestic chores with the air of a man gunning for penance, rather than one victimized by the uneasy dynamics of sibling cohabitation.
“The hypocrite’s voice haunts his own den,” Richard shoots back, after a scolding from Sharky. Skilled at rubbing salt in wounds to gets what he wants, life under the same roof as Richard is “a choppy ride,” according to Colin McPhillamy, who balances the character’s bellicose nature with surplus charisma and just enough vulnerability to keep him from being abandoned by family, friends, and the audience. Paired with Andy Murray’s intense and restrained performance as Sharky, the brothers are reason enough to merit a trip to the Irish Repertory Theatre — but the pot is sweetened when old, equally dysfunctional friends Ivan (Michael Mellamphy) and Nicky (Tim Ruddy) show up for the annual Christmas Eve poker game, with new acquaintance Mr. Lockhart (Matthew Broderick) in tow, who raises the stakes by revealing himself to Sharky as a sinister collector of old debts.
“It’s actually an allegorical, redemptive tale couched in the costume of these extraordinarily sort of lowlife, vulgarian alcoholics,” McPhillamy said during a recent interview with this publication. Looking past the play’s verbal abuse, physical altercations, mortal sins, and so very, very many uses of the F-word, McPhillamy rightly declared the supernatural-tinged 2008 work by Conor McPherson to be, when all is said and done, “just beautiful. The message is that there can be mystery, magic, redemption, grace, all these good things, in any context.”
That’s not to say, however, that one should expect to exit on a note of unfettered optimism. “The Seafarer,” like previous Irish Rep productions of McPherson’s work (“The Weir” and “Shining City”), never grants its characters satisfaction without strings attached. Ciarán O’Reilly directs with his usual knack for presenting to viewers the playwright’s dense language and signature cadence as swoon-worthy rather than demanding, further buoyed by O’Reilly’s ability to bring simmering emotions to the surface at just the right moment. And that’s a necessary skill, as a series of revelations change our perception of karma, damnation, and self-destruction.
“This is a play,” McPhillamy noted, “that has a range of experiences. It’s really quite funny, but it’s got an element that is profoundly alarming. Whether you’re a person of faith or have a metaphysical view of life, the play confronts us with a universal truth, which is that we will all die — and none of us, or at least no one in my acquaintance, has any definite information about what happens then… In our culture, so much focus is on the idea that death is optional, and that life can be extended indefinitely with a reverse mortgage and the right kind of medication… It’s kind of refreshing to have a breath of truth, and that’s something the play brings.”
Of the man who plays Sharky, McPhillamy said, “He’s immensely dedicated to the craft, meticulous in his work, whereas I’m more of a splash it around guy, a bit untidy in my approach… It worked out very well for the stage relationship. He’s doing all of these things for me: making toast, cleaning up, always on the go — and I’m sitting there,” McPhillamy chuckled, “being waited on.”
There was, McPhillamy said, from the beginning, “a highly creative atmosphere” created by O’Reilly, first and foremost by “casting the play very well. We’re all very different in terms of the energy and quality that each of us supplies, and so of course as you begin to explore what the relationships are, so much is created in rehearsal… Ciarán gives you a supportive space where you can experiment.”
As for Matthew Broderick, McPhillamy called his interpretation of the Mr. Lockhart character “an object lesson in modesty and generosity. I believe he is, kind of, ‘underacting’ everybody off the stage [laughs], and it’s a very smart and clever approach… To get inside the character in this way, that isn’t completely obvious, it’s tremendously interesting.” Regular visitors to the Irish Rep know of what McPhillamy speaks, having seen Broderick excel with his similarly non-comedic and layered turn in 2016’s “Shining City,” as a grieving widower haunted by visions.
“It’s very exciting,” McPhillamy said of the diverse cast, “when actors at different levels in the profession mix it up. It’s something that happens in London, which is where I spent my first years [as an actor].” That city also played a part in helping him nail Richard’s accent, McPhillamy recalled, referencing London’s “large Irish population. So I was very familiar with the Irish sound, if you like.” It’s all the more impressive, given the actor’s Aussie roots. (London-born to Australian parents and now an American citizen, he no longer has to talk his way past customs by hoping they recognize him from “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”)
Asked how he spends his down time after the play, McPhillamy — who once lived in the Village — said he knows the Chelsea area around the Irish Rep well, and noted it’s not an uncommon practice to “after the show, go and have a drink with a friend at Champignon [200 Seventh Ave., btw. W. 21st & 22nd Sts.], or Restivo [209 Seventh Ave., at W. 22nd St.]. And I get spicy Korean seafood soup sometimes at Essen [699 Sixth Ave., btw. W. 22nd & 23rd Sts.].”
But he won’t be a presence in the neighborhood for long. “The Seafarer” closes on May 24, at which point McPhillamy will shift his focus to co-directing, with wife and Irish Rep veteran Patricia Connolly, “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Bagaduce Theatre in Brooksville, Maine. “It’s as far northeast as you can go without getting to Canada,” he noted. “The only thing I’m hesitant about is the size of the mosquitos, which are Special Forces-trained.” After that, he’ll join the company of “The Ferryman,” coming to Broadway in the fall.
Assessing this, his first time working with the Irish Rep, McPhillamy said, “I’m very happy with the gig. It’s a management and a company that does it right. There’s a culture of friendliness and respect that extends to every level… Every now and again, you come across something and it’s just pitch-perfect. This has really been a delight, this whole experience.”
“The Seafarer” plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 W. 22nd St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.) through May 24. Wed. and Sat., 3pm & 8pm; Thurs., 7pm; Fri., 8pm; Sun., 3pm. Additional performance on Tues., May 22 at 7pm. Runtime: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission. For tickets ($50-$70), visit irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org. For Colin McPhillamy’s blog, visit mcphillamy.com.