The Seafarer

Now playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.

The most memorable passage of The Seafarer is a monologue about Hell—Hell as a place, not a mere concept, but not the traditional inferno either. To the contrary, The Seafarer describes Hell as a place of cold—cold, isolation, and self-loathing. The more I think about it, the more I like that description. Flames might be more frightening from a physical standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint, cold is worse. A cold person is capable of much more terrible cruelty than a fiery person. What’s more, cold is not a thing itself; it is absence, the absence of heat. Cold is abandonment, loneliness, rejection or, worse, indifference. Fire might be physical agony, but cold goes deeper. To experience a cold Hell is to experience profound loss, the loss of everything warm and good and beautiful.

I listened, rapt, as Ciarán Hinds delivered the Hell monologue in The Seafarer, just as I listened, rapt, to the monologues in The Weir, an earlier work by the same playwright, Conor McPherson, when it saw it in London nearly ten years ago. But unlike The Weir, The Seafarer didn’t really capture my imagination beyond that monologue. Unlike in The Weir, the monologue was really the only thing that felt fresh.

To be fair, it must be difficult to uncover something fresh is this familiar story: a man receives a visit from a mysterious stranger who turns out to be the Devil and who has appeared to claim the man’s soul. The man in this case is Sharky (David Morse), a perpetually disappointed, underachieving alcoholic who has returned to his hometown on the coast of Ireland to care for his older brother, Richard (Jim Norton), a cheerful drunk who recently lost his vision in an accident. A couple of Richard’s friends stop by on Christmas eve, and one of them brings a new acquaintance, Mr. Lockhart (Hinds), who reveals himself to Sharky as the Devil. The men sit down to play a game of cards, and only Sharky knows that his soul is forfeit if Lockhart wins.

The two acts of the play take place on that one day at Richard’s house with lots of drinking and joking and Irish broguing (that’s not a verb, but I don’t care). McPherson has a famous knack for dialogue, and the actors bring it to life well. Morse and Norton make the testy yet affectionate bond between Sharky and Richard feel very real, and Hinds’s performance is harrowing, genial one moment and deeply menacing the next.

But, the Devil aside, too often that drinking, joking, and broguing feels like Theatrical Irishness for its own sake, and while it never feels rote, it never feels particularly compelling either. The Devil stuff usually isn’t all that interesting either, inspiring déjà vu more than anything else. I flashed back to everything from Faust to Dogma, Kevin Smith’s shaggy philosophizing extravaganza, and loath as I am to admit it, Smith’s fallen-angel-jealous-of-humanity bit touched me far more than McPherson’s did.

The Seafarer is a good play, with its deftly drawn characters and dark humor and that one amazing monologue about the nature of Hell, but Hinds’s performance is what really makes it worth watching. Too often Hinds is relegated to the sidelines (at least on screen, which is where I usually see him), so it’s a treat to see him on center stage, chilling my soul to its very core.