ON OPENING NIGHT: The Seafarer — The Blind and the Blind-Drunk

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07 Dec 2007

Jim Norton; Ciar
Jim Norton; Ciar
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

There are spirits, and then there are spirits, and both varieties swirl dizzily around The Seafarer, Conor McPherson's Irish ghost story that docked Dec. 6 in the safe harbor of the Booth after a strike-tossed, transatlantic crossing that kept it at bay for three weeks.

Like Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County — the two other new plays that jumped out of the hopper and got to market first this week — The Seafarer could convincingly sail straight into Tony contention for 2007's Best Play, which gives rise to the shuddering thought that this is the season that almost wasn't.

As it was, the expense of keeping all hands on deck — in town and on hold, ready to rush on stage the second a strike settlement was reached — scuttled the opening-night-party ritual. Instead, before departing for O'Lunney ("or O'Something's"), the five-man cast and their writer-director met with a skeleton press contingent in the bowels of the Booth.

"It was really weird, very confusing and sort of frightening, never knowing what was going to happen," McPherson said of his play's protracted stumble into a Broadway run.

"There were many false dawns during those three weeks, but we were able to get together as a group, to stay together and to keep working together. We all decided to stick through it, and, I think, by the end of it all, that decision gave us a certain ensemble familiarity maybe we might not have had, so for us, the strike provided a wonderful opportunity."



Two Irishmen imported from London's National to reprise 100-proof-plus, high-comedy highs (Jim Norton, an Obie winner for McPherson's Dublin Carol, and Conleth Hill, a Tony nominee for Stones in His Pockets) subscribed to that sunny-side-of-the-strike view.

"It brought us together more," contended Hill, "because without breaking strike rules, we met every day voluntarily and ran the lines, and then we read other plays, so we kept very busy during the strike. Mostly, it was meeting like early Christians in borrowed rooms."

There are differences between American and English audiences, but Hill dodged going into them. "I love 'em all equally, but I do have a special place in my heart for New York audiences. I was here in 2001, and I have great respect and admiration for New Yorkers."

The play takes place on Christmas Eve in a drab Dublin home awash in too much holiday cheer. The irascible master of the house, Norton, is — for instance — inordinately jubilant in light of a Halloween tumble in a dumpster that has left him sightless. Hill is a drinking buddy who has slept over — "on a rug, like an animal" —unable to locate his glasses or car.

David Morse plays Norton's long-stemmed loser of a brother who has returned home to take care of him and is in a second shaky day of sobriety — a challenge given the nonstop sloshing going around him and the special problems presented by two late-arrivals who have come to play poker. One is a callow youth (Sean Mahon) who is dating Morse's ex-wife; the other is a stranger named metaphorically Mister Lockhart (Ciarán Hinds), who, it gradually but inescapably evolves, has a very special ax to grind with Morse.

When Hinds makes his measured entrance onto the scene, supernaturalism enters the play with him. This somber, sinister chap turns out to be — literally — Satan, and he has come, he tells Morse at the end of Act I, to collect his soul for a crime committed 25 Christmases ago.

In Act II, it's the Devil to pay. Old Scratch is an old sport who'll get his due with the turn of the card. By this point, Morse has retreated into screaming silence, his mind racing for escape routes, smoke almost coming out of his ears — a subtle performance played on a dog whistle. "I'm fighting for my life by then," said Morse, "looking for clues to how I can beat this guy, what I can pick up in the room. It's all about trying to save my life."

Both Morse and Hinds wear the same downward frowns during the mental duels, sometimes shooting each other laser looks through the slits of their eyes. Occasionally, when Hinds catches a look from Morse, his downward frown lifts to a rather sickly smile.

The trick with this intense internal exchange, noted Morse, "is you have to do it eight times a week and hear it fresh eight times a week and let it happen to you — whatever those impulses are, whatever they're saying, whatever thoughts come in the middle of it. You know, I can be thinking anything, and you're going to project whatever you want on me."

McPherson has deliberately built dramatic irony into this wordless war by the fact the two people who could help Morse in his hour of need can't even see he's having a problem.

"I think there's a metaphor in there of being able to see clearly," the author admitted, "but I don't think we can see anything or know anything really and truly until maybe we die — and then we don't know anything because we're dead. Yeah, there's some effort in there to somehow poetically try and hint about what I couldn't say in a direct way."

While Morse and Hinds are glaring hostility at each other from opposite sides if the stage, the center ring is hilariously filled with the slapstick staggering-about of Norton and Hill — allowing McPherson to wear both theatrical masks at the same time. A couple of times, they and Mahon run outside — much like three-sheets-to-the-wind — to scare off some unwanted, ruckus-making winos (talk about the pot calling the kettle black!), thus giving the Devil and his prey some time to themselves for some close-quarter jabbing and jabbering.

"Conor said from the very beginning when he sent me the play that my character was the engine of the play," said Norton, who collected an Olivier for it in March. "He drives the play. He never gives up. He's a very positive, desperate man. 'I need an actor of your age,' he said rather charmingly, 'who has that level of vocal fitness and athleticism to do it.' I was flattered, as always. This is the fifth play of his that I've done. We did The Weir on Broadway. It was studiously ignored by the Tony committee, but it got the Olivier."

The split-level comedy-drama going on simultaneously in the play is huge fun to play, admitted Norton. "It's slightly surreal because that's the way the character is. He doesn't know what's going on. That adds another layer to the play. There are moments where I try to indicate that something strange is happening, but I don't quite know what it is."

If the gathering clouds of menace miss him, the character is acutely attuned to anyone else on stage sneaking a swig of booze. "We did a little research on this," the actor noted. "All five of the guys on stage are drinking, but everybody has a different metabolism, and everybody gets drunk in a different way. Conor, very meticulously, directed this so that there were five people all getting drunk at different levels of inebriation. Otherwise, the play would just become swamped in alcohol. As it is, it's just swamped in apple juice."

The blurred-to-oblivious perspective that Hill and Norton have on the drama that's going on right under their noses also has the advantage of helping McPherson pull a happy ending out of his hat at the eleventh hour. His reasoning is classically Catholic: "There has to be a happy ending. If you have the Devil, you have God. Right? And, if you have God, of course, there's a happy ending because everything makes sense that way."

He gets his title and premise here from an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem. "It's an old story in Ireland," he said. "There was this place called The Hellfire Club where these rich landlords would go and carouse. One night a stranger knocked at the door where they were playing cards and interrupted their party and sat down to play cards with them. Someone dropped a card and went down to retrieve it and saw that the stranger had a cloven hoof. He's the Devil. Then, at that moment of recognition, he just disappeared.

"I thought, 'Well, the story is just getting good, and he disappeared?' I always wanted to — I dunno — finish that story somehow, and that, basically, is the reason I wrote The Seafarer."

The supernatural element that brought McPherson to Broadway in the first place (via The Weir of 1999) is also going to be taking him into movies: "The working title is 'The Eclipse,'" he said of his screenplay. "I'm going to direct it, too — in Ireland, in the spring."

Of the cast, only Mahon is the new kid on the Broadway block (Morse counts his week playing the priest in On the Waterfront in 1999 as his Broadway debut). "I've been at this quite a while," admitted Mahon, "and you feel like you're a million miles away from Broadway. Then, one thing comes along, and, all of a sudden, you're right here. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and my agent in New York called and said, 'Would you fly in and audition for this?' I did, and I did the call-back, and, within three days, I was going to Broadway." Yes, he sweated the strike, "but I gotta say I was very optimistic. I tend to lead with optimism anyway. Everything had gone so well for me, I just wouldn't believe the world was going to contrive for it not to happen. And — you see! — it happened.

"The greatest thing is you get to work with this caliber of people. You gotta work hard to get anywhere — that's a given, and that's great — but the people I'm working with at the moment are among the most talented and brilliant I ever worked with. This ensemble is a medley, a whole jazz routine. I just couldn't be more blessed than this."

Hinds agreed: "These actors are very, very special. It doesn't happen that much. This whole experience is about working with people together who respect each other's work. There has never been any discussion — or any problems — about working together. All of us had problems at different times. Everybody supported us. This is not idle cliche. It's fact."

So where does one go for Devil research? Not to "Alias Nick Beal" or "Meet Joe Black," said Hinds, "but I had a look at 'Angel Heart.' I wasn't going to emulate or plagiarize Mr. De Niro, I just wanted to see where he went. I saw it 20 years ago when it came out, and I wondered because you didn't quite know who he was. It was lovely to get to decipher it."

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson were as glittery as the first-nighters got. Both were there for Hinds. "Liam and I have known each other since we were 18 or 19 in Northern Ireland," said Hinds. "We met each other there around 1973. And, when I did Closer on Broadway with Natasha, I said, 'Can I borrow your wife for a moment and pretend that I love her?'"

Oliver Platt and Peter Scanavino — two denizens of Shining City, McPherson's last Broadway spook-show — and its director (Robert Falls) were there, cheering their boy on. Platt's career is in a slash mode these days, he said: He's set for more "Nip/Tuck" episodes, and he just finished Ron Howard's movie version of Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon with the original London and Broadway leads, Michael Sheen and Tony winner Frank Langella. On Tuesday, Falls said he was beginning a new Shining City in Chicago. "It's an all-Chicago company. It'll open at the Goodman right after the first."

A couple of actor pals — John Shea and John Rothman — attended together. Shea is turning into a hyphenate this spring, directing a screenplay he wrote called "Gray Lady." No, he said, "it's not about The New York Times. Nantucket is also called The Gray Lady, and it's a murder mystery set on Nantucket. I won't be in it, I don't think."

Rothman was reeling from a very good day of job offers: "I was asked to do a play at the Michael Weller Theatre called Tender. It won a 2001 Olivier and has never been done here. Kevin O'Rourke, the actor, will direct. I also got a movie today. They're remaking 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' with Keanu Reeves and Kathy Bates. I'm a doctor."

Others attending: Karen Mason, Tony winner Roger Rees, playwright David Ives (who will be helping Mark Twain ask the question Is He Dead? Dec. 9 at the Lyceum), Bobby Cannavale and Alison Pill (remaining a theatre couple after their Mauritius has closed), actor-author Richard Seff, Thomas Jay Ryan (late of The Misanthrope), choreographer Rob Ashford and the Patti LuPone Gypsy conductor who'll be taking up that baton again this spring, Patrick Vaccariello.