A review of The Seafarer by NYT Ben Brantley

A review of The Seafarer by NYT Ben Brantley

New York Times | Theater Review | ‘The Seafarer’


Do you know how you behave when you’re drunk, I mean, really drunk? If the answer is yes, then you’ve never been that drunk, since the curse and kindness of vast quantities of alcohol is that they obliterate self-awareness.

This physiological fact of life makes the gorgeous, vitally intelligent performances in “The Seafarer,” the new play by Conor McPherson that opened last night at the Booth Theater, all the more remarkable. Everyone in this dark and enthralling Christmas fable of despair and redemption descends at some point to oceanic depths of drunkenness, including a sinister fellow who is, shall we say, not of this world.

Yet as written and directed, the five carefully shaped characters of “The Seafarer” are blessedly free of the blurry, slurry clichés of acting intoxicated that can drive a sensitive theatergoer to, well, drink. Directed by Mr. McPherson, one of the finest ensembles to grace a Broadway stage in years uncovers the soul-defining clarity within the drunkard’s haze. Alcohol may be a great leveler, but as these men confirm with spectacular style, it is also a great individualizer.

Five poker-playing Irish drunks, bumping into the furniture of an ill-kept house in Dublin on Christmas Eve, may not sound like your ideal people to spend the holidays with. But as unlikely as it sounds, “The Seafarer” may just be the pick-me-up play of the season.

Structured as a long night’s journey into day, with truly frightening glimpses of a darkness that stretches into eternity, “The Seafarer” turns out to be a thinking-person’s alternative to “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a flagon of Christmas cheer. It’s heavier on the stinging sauce than that film, Frank Capra’s best loved, and lighter on the syrup. And it tingles with its author’s acute and authentic sense of what is knowable and unknowable in life. Of course it could be argued that it’s hard to know anything if you’re looking at the world through a glass of whiskey. But don’t think for a second that the prodigiously gifted Mr. McPherson, who has spoken publicly of his own battles with alcohol, has written a theatrical variation on “The Lost Weekend.”

In “The Seafarer” alcoholism isn’t primarily a medical condition but an existential one. As in earlier plays like “The Weir” and “Shining City,” Mr. McPherson is considering the impenetrable, scary mystery that is being alive and the blundering ways that poor humans deal with it. “The Seafarer” portrays the forms of amnesia and anesthesia that allow people to wake up with themselves.

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