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If an actor can’t summon enough of an alpha vibe to make a credible Harold Hill, why in tarnation would you cast him as the Devil himself?
I refer to Matthew Broderick, whose game but tepid turn as the con artist of The Music Man in a 2003 TV movie adaptation crystallized, for me, the limitations of a stage and screen star who had proven immensely likable in roles requiring him to be youthful, deferential, befuddled, and/or sweetly neurotic. None of these are qualities you would naturally associate with the original great red dragon, yet there Broderick is in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s compelling new revival of The Seafarer, playing the embodiment of foreboding evil, all natty in a suit and tie.
Mr. Lockhart, the human form that Satan assumes in Seafarer, is indeed a dapper fellow, particularly compared to the sorry assortment of middle-aged lads he finds himself visiting one Christmas Eve. When Conor McPherson’s wickedly entertaining play, set in a coastal suburb of Dublin, premiered on Broadway in 2007, Lockhart was portrayed by Ciarán Hinds, who brought to the part a dark elegance and barely contained ferocity that were as sumptuous as they were terrifying. Had Hinds actually breathed fire in the middle of a monologue, no one would have been surprised.
Broderick’s Lockhart is, predictably, rather less intimidating — though as directed by Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, as part of a razor-sharp ensemble, he is a solid and disturbing presence. Recent years have found Broderick seemingly aiming to broaden his palette, with intriguing results. He made a brief but memorable appearance as a creepily polite zealot in last year’s Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea, and also earned acclaim as a haunted widower in another Irish Rep production of a McPherson play, Shining City, in 2016.
Lockhart would seem to pose a greater challenge than these, but O’Reilly and the other excellent actors in this Seafarer lay the foundation for a different but still affecting interpretation of the role. The play unfolds in a cluttered, dingy living room: a perfect picture of morning-after squalor, as drawn by scenic designer Charlie Corcoran. Amid the liquor bottles and other assorted debris, James “Sharky” Harkin, described in McPherson’s character listings as an “erstwhile fisherman/van driver/chauffeur,” reluctantly tends to his older brother, Richard, recently blinded in a booze-fueled incident involving a dumpster.
Blindness, spiritual as well as physical, is a recurring motif in Seafarer, as is the sometimes-related state of drunkenness. The alcohol flows early and often in the play, blurring the men’s ability to see themselves as it loosens their inhibitions. Ivan, Richard’s equally feckless drinking buddy, shows up early to kick off a liquid celebration of the holiday. We glean that Sharky has an even more fraught relationship with the bottle, but he has lately been trying to abstain from imbibing. After Lockhart arrives that evening, though — ostensibly as a guest of Nicky, Sharky’s ex-wife’s current partner — it’s only a matter of time before that battle is lost.
Sharky will show more fortitude in confronting Lockhart, who has come expressly to see him, concerning a certain wager made years ago, in a jail cell, over a game of cards. The scenes that show Sharky in private conference with Lockhart are the most chilling in the play, and Broderick and Andy Murray, the actor cast as Sharky, bring to them a nuanced tension, with Broderick’s gentle affability giving way to something more inscrutable and threatening.
Murray’s fierce, broken Sharky is the ideal foil to this improbable Devil. All sinew and restless frustration — “a very tough life … etched on his face,” is how McPherson’s stage directions indicate his physical aspect — Sharky finds himself at once infuriated and daunted by the complacency and privilege Broderick exudes here. It’s easy to see how this Lockhart, with his unassuming manner and soft good looks (though well into his fifties, with more salt than pepper in his hair, Broderick still has a boyish mien), could unsettle someone whose life has been defined by limited and poor choices.
It’s similarly understandable that Broderick’s Lockhart would deceive Seafarer’s other unfortunate souls, who haven’t lived very wisely or well themselves. As Richard and Ivan, respectively, Colin McPhillamy and Michael Mellamphy mine the comedy and pathos of their characters’ self-destructive passivity — even if Richard shows sufficient spirit to have Lockhart take him for a “believer.” Tim Ruddy’s droll Nicky shows more swagger, but is cowed by fear of retribution from the woman he left at home.
Sharky has more tender feelings, it turns out, for the wife of his last employer. His relative glimmers of courage, and the prospect of redemption eventually dangled before him, could owe something to this torch he carries. McPherson may not be declaring that love will always trump darker forces, but this Seafarer provides a timely reminder that both menace and consolation can be found in the most unlikely places.