A Boozy Christmas Eve Brings Surprises

There's nothing like a little liquor to unlock a play and its characters.

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NEW YORK — There's nothing like a little liquor to unlock a play and its characters.

And the booze flows freely in "The Seafarer," Conor McPherson's haunting yet often hilarious tale of a memorable Christmas Eve poker night in a dingy Dublin suburb.

The play, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, is filled with talk - colorful, spirited language that's seized with gusto by an excellent five-person cast that includes Jim Norton, Ciaran Hinds, David Morse, Conleth Hill and Sean Mahon.

McPherson is an accomplished Irish dramatist, author of such vivid pieces of storytelling as "The Weir" and "Shining City." And he reaffirms that ability here, creating a remarkably humane play, particularly in the depiction of its main character.

Sharky Harkin, portrayed with touching, bottled-up vulnerability by Morse, is metaphorically lost at sea. A recovering alcoholic, Sharky is adrift in indecision: womanless, ricocheting from one menial job to another and now forced to take care of his older brother, Richard, who has been blinded in a fall.

Yet it is Richard who is full of life and blarney. The man never stops talking or philosophizing. And when he's played by Norton, you know the result will be a master class in stage acting. The actor gives a total performance - physically as well as verbally. Watch as he negotiates the stairs in designer Rae Smith's drab setting decorated with a forlorn Christmas tree. Or as he carefully handles his glass of whiskey so as not to spill one drop of the precious liquid.

But then McPherson, who also directed his play, has been remarkably generous to all his actors. Despite the ensemble nature of the play, each gets his moment to shine and build a distinct character.

Hill, for example, is the good-natured alcoholic, forever bumbling, and always forgetting things, particularly his eyeglasses. Mahon gets to strut as the cocky younger man who is now living with Sharky's ex. It makes for an uneasy relationship between the two men.

Into this collection of old friends and drinking buddies comes Mr. Lockhart, a suave gentleman of uncertain employment. But the man does have a mission, and it won't be revealed here.

The magnetic Hinds portrays this dapper intruder with an urbane, if sinister charm, carefully concealing his real motives for showing up. Those motives push the play to its surprise, if slightly contrived, ending.

The play takes its time setting up that surprise. Until then, McPherson allows us to revel in an all-male world of alcohol-fueled friendships, relationships that are equal parts bravado and insecurity.

"The Seafarer" was a hit for the National Theatre in London in 2006 and will have its Irish premiere next April - in a different production - at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. One can't imagine it being any better that what McPherson and company have put on stage at the Booth.

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