Monday, January 28, 2008
Twisting the Night Away
By Josh R
Blame it on the Irish.
The element of surprise has always been a crucial component of the art of storytelling — in recent years, it may have evolved from an incidental pleasure to a raison d’etre. Ever since Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan pulled both the rug and the floorboards out from under shell-shocked audiences with his 1992 film The Crying Game, screenwriters the world over have burned out their brains cells trying to devise and execute similar feats of shock and awe. The Jordan film, a gender-bending confidence trick which became a phenomenon by keeping audiences in the dark, only to jolt them out of their seats (and their complacency) by blinding them with high-wattage floodlights before they even knew what had hit them, ushered in the age of The Twist. Since then, films such as The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, or seemingly anything released in the past two years involving a magician, have been conceived and marketed specifically in terms of their proclaimed ability to subvert audience expectations. In a way, the architects of these brain-teasers seem to be throwing down the gauntlet, daring us gullible boobs to crack the riddle before we wind up with as much egg on our faces as the slow-witted characters over whose eyes the proverbial wool is being pulled.
In the more rarified world of theater, writers don’t have quite as many options at their disposal when it comes to prompting jaws to drop. Without the benefit of sophisticated technology and quick-cutting scenes to cover the element of implausibility, or the ability to do rapid-fire flashbacks to tie everything together when the truth is revealed, playwrights can’t make as many abrupt about-faces. This is not to say contemporary playwrights don’t do their fair share of twisting — August: Osage County, the new work by Tracy Letts, features enough in the way of jaw-dropping surprise to cause O. Henry’s brain to short-circuit — but building suspense in the theater requires more in the way of dramatic substance. The story — the journey, really — needs to create as much interest as the place to which it’s taking us.
There’s more to Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, the well-lubricated black comedy of drunkenness and supernatural skullduggery currently guzzling, stumbling and hiccupping its way across the stage of The Booth Theatre, than the clever, carefully revealed conceit on which its story hinges, or the 11th-hour curveball it nails squarely over the plate. Each act ends with a twist; the first one jump-starts the action (too late), while the latter — and it’s a good one, mind you — is intended as a fun coda to leave audiences with a nice buzz. This is not a play fashioned around a single instance of sleight-of-hand, and with no other reason for being — but somehow, it still manages to feel that way. Chalk this up to the fact that it simply takes too long before what we’re seeing begins to feel relevant, and the play exhausts our patience in getting to the payoffs. While the characters may be three sheets to the wind, certain elements of McPherson’s play are delivered with sober clarity — but by the time the playwright has put the finishing touches on his cocktail, he’s already past the legal limit in terms of how much latitude thirsty theatergoers will give him while waiting at the bar. If you want to keep a roomful of drunks happy, you gotta keep those drinks coming.
Lest I be accused of going overboard with the drinking references, please be assured that The Seafarer is as much about intoxication — and its uncomfortable proximity to mortality — as it is about anything else. The play observes the inebriated interactions of a group of blue-collar friends who congregate on Christmas Eve allegedly for the purpose of playing poker — but really just as an excuse for getting drunk, and staying that way for as long as they can maintain consciousness (or until their much-abused livers go on strike). The site of their revels is the depressingly run down home of Richard Harkin (Jim Norton), a puckish, nattering blind man being cared for by his joyless brother Sharky (David Morse), a slump-shouldered hulk whose hangdog countenance bespeaks having accepted failure in all things as a fate preordained. Their guests include Nicky (Sean Mahon), a handsome, cocky imbecile sharing a lovenest with Sharkey’s estranged wife and children; Ivan (Conleth Hill), a bumbling family man who looks like Dilbert’s less suave cousin and spends much of the evening searching for his glasses; and an unexpected guest, the well-heeled, cagey Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), who is there for purposes that no one expecting a straight-faced exercise in realism should be able to divine. It turns out that the stakes of this poker game are much higher than its gin-soaked participants could ever have imagined.
It’s hard to find much fault with the basic structure of the play; as any good poker player knows, the surest way to come up short is to tip your hand right off the bat. Perhaps by necessity, there isn’t much real action to speak of during the opening act — McPherson uses it to establish the characters and their relationships, create a sense of the world in which they live, and lull the audience into a false sense of security. ‘Lull’ being the operative term here; not until the end of the first act did anything occur to pique my interest. Granted, it isn’t easy to bring a sense of cogency to the behavior of characters who function in a diminished state of clarity. With the exception of Mr. Lockhart, who is the last person to arrive, and Sharkey, who doesn’t have much to say in the beginning (he’s basically there to keep people from bumping into furniture), no one is exactly lucid. The conversation unfolds much in the same way that conversations do in bars after a few drinks; it’s hazy, far-ranging and without much sense of purpose. McPherson isn’t the kind of writer who can always hold you on the strength of his language, which is unpretentious while at the same time containing an element of ambiguity. Part of this has to do with the fact that his characters are not particularly sophisticated and can’t always put their feelings into words — but it’s also a reflection of the playwright’s reluctance to reveal too much too soon by spelling things out for the audience. When he’s at his best — as he was with the spellbinding ghost story Shining City — he draws you in by revealing the characters’ anxieties through their inability to communicate exactly what they mean to say, and acknowledging that struggle as the source of their vulnerability and isolation. The language in The Seafarer has the same basic properties — it’s elliptical, while at the same time colloquially casual — but in terms of what’s actually being said, the characters aren’t revealing much of anything. Hearing these men rattle on about nothing in particular has the effect of listening to a succession of inside jokes that you’re not quite inside enough to get, or the kind of anecdotes that usually end with the proviso “I guess you had to be there.” After a few minutes in, I was having flashbacks to mind-numbing evenings at the dinner table listening to my father and brother talking about people I didn’t know, sports I didn’t care about, and stories that seemed specifically engineered to rile my inner snob (did we have nothing more stimulating to talk about that people named Vinny being punched, or punching someone else?). As a result, the opening act feels like so much filler, as if the playwright is simply marking time before playing his trump card. It’s believable enough, and often humorous, but it has nothing in the way of tension or a sense of dramatic purpose.
To his credit, McPherson does manage to move the action forward, albeit fitfully, in the second act, when the focus is on the battle of wills between Sharkey and Mr. Lockhart — only then is the audience is drawn into a conflict with real stakes. Unfortunately, too much has been sacrificed in getting to that point, and the final coup de grace, while gracefully executed, doesn’t have as much impact as it would otherwise. When things finally start popping, it’s difficult to be fully engaged since so much of what's occured before has had the effect of alienation.
The five members of the cast certainly give it their all, and for the most part, they make the action believable even when it isn’t particularly interesting — although not all of them seem to be acting in the same play. Norton, who received the Olivier Award for his performance in London and seems poised to reap similar tributes on these shores, dominates the scenes he’s in and gets the lion’s share of the laughs. That said, one can’t shake the sense that he’s playing more to the audience than to anyone else on stage. The actor bears a physical resemblance to George Carlin, and his broad performance style evokes nothing so much as Carlin doing his drunk/stoner act. Sean Mahon does a fine job of suggesting the insecurity and defensiveness behind his vain idiot’s swagger, while Conleth Hill — Tony-nominated a few years ago for Stones in His Pockets, yet another Irish import — brings surprising credibility to a performance based in comic exaggeration. It would be very easy for the character, as he plays it, to exist solely on the level of caricature, but Hill finds creative ways to make the mannerism seem like an authentic reflection of a real personality.
As stated, it is the clash between the play’s two most compelling characters — Sharkey and Lockhart — which drives the action, and as a natural consequence, it is the actors portraying them who make the strongest impression. David Morse, a performer who achieves his effects with remarkable economy, makes the extent to which his character has been defeated by life explicit through passive physicality. When Sharkey finds the resolve to fight, Morse’s posture straightens as if an unexpected current had snapped him back to attention, and the droopy-eyed look hardens into a tight expression of coiled determination. He is well matched with Ciaran Hinds, who pulls off a sly feat of sorcery as a character who would seem to exist on a very conceptual level, but is brought to three-dimensional life with astonishingly vivid strokes. Like Morse, his transformation takes a physical form — without benefit of makeup, his bland, nondescript features sharpen into a mask of menacing terror as the layers of Lockhart’s surface geniality are being methodically peeled away. Once Hinds flips the switch, a character who has faded into the background becomes a truly frightening presence, as detached amiability gives way to reveal acid rage — one which scalds with a white-hot intensity without ever being taken over the top.
It is only in the scenes between these two actors in which McPherson’s considerable talent as a writer pierces through the prevailing sense of aimlessness that keeps The Seafarer in check. Hinds is assigned a chilling aria of torment and despair which is as hauntingly evocative as anything the playwright has ever written — my companion remarked that she was likely to have nightmares about it (I’m guessing she won’t be alone). Like Martin McDonagh, another playwright who is part of what has justifiably been hailed as a new renaissance in the Irish theater, McPherson has a keen sense of structure, and knows how to use a surprise twist to tie everything together in a way that makes dramatic sense. In Mr. McDonagh’s most recent Broadway offering, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the final twist seemed like the punchline to a beautifully sustained, infinitely engrossing two-hour joke. The twist that wraps up the McPherson play is just as funny and feels just as right, but the time it takes in getting there isn’t as well spent. The Seafarer has much to recommend it — while its most successful passages pack the sting that can be felt after two or three hastily imbibed shots of good Irish whisky, the play as a whole may leave you feeling just about as blurry in the hours to follow.