The play has nothing to do with the sea, and the title character isn't the protagonist. Conor McPherson's brilliant drama of a man who plays cards with the devil for his soul on Christmas Eve is a gift of hope to the audience. The supernatural elements provide tension and a touch of Celtic mystery.
The play takes place in an old house in Howth, and in the published version of the play, McPherson titles Act One "The Devil at Binn Eadair." The Hell-Fire Club, a ruined hunting lodge that overlooks Dublin, supposedly once hosted a card-game with a mysterious stranger – the devil. Howth Head itself is a site of a good bit of supernatural embroidery (see links below for additional information. More than one Celtic song involves a chance meeting with the devil, who particularly liked to pose as a suitor.
Although McPherson describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, there's a lot of Christian imagery in the play – including a light under a picture of the Sacred Heart whose flickering status holds some significance. The fact that the devil can show up to play cards on Christmas and again on Easter is not coincidence. But even atheists will have trouble resisting the urgency of a soul struggling to find some meaning in life that plays out before our eyes. In fact, the devil doesn't even arrive until the middle of Act One.
Most of the time, the play feels a bit like a drunken version of The Full Monty, only this male bonding foregoes the nudity and has a darker edge. We first encounter the play's pair of brothers, Richard (Jim Norton) and Sharkey (David Morse) on a morning-after – Richard, who has gone blind, startles Sharkey as he comes downstairs by unexpectedly popping up from the beer cans on the floor in back of the sofa. When he's drunk, Richard can't manage to feel his way upstairs. Norton hums, sings, and tirelessly jollies everyone around him – including the audience. No drunk could be more lovable, and no performer could more perfectly nail the essence of the character's simplicity of faith and mischievous spirit. Richard can't even manage to get out of the bathroom unaided. McPherson is not in the least above toilet humor.
It's not long before we meet another hungover mate: Ivan (Conleth Hill), who has spent the night because he couldn't get a cab and couldn't find his glasses. We learn that while that Sharkey has ostensibly come home to take care of his older brother, he also really has nowhere else to go – he screwed up his last job up North as a chauffeur. It's the day before Christmas. Ivan is scared to go home to the wife, Richard chirps Christmas carols and coaxes Sharkey to get into the spirit of things, and Sharkey tries, not entirely successfully, to keep down the anger that provokes fights with strangers in pubs. His ex, Eileen, has taken up with some young guy named Nickey. A package arrives containing CDs and a card from the wife of his former employer – from the way Sharkey holds the package we know this holds meaning. And we learn that Sharkey has been off of drink for two days.
It's not much in the way of plot – it's all talk. But it's such rich talk. The interactions between the characters are full of nuance and heart. Ivan tells a story of Maurice Macken, who used to drive a milk lorry, who narrowly escaped electrocution – only to die in a fire in his own house that same night. While you and the characters onstage are still laughing at the chanciness of fate, Ivan casually goes on to relate how several people have seen him since.
"…apparently he looks really white. He was standing near the hatch. Big Bernard's cousin saw him. Apparently he was just standing there looking out into the car park, like he was waiting on a lift or something."
Remember The Weir, McPherson's breakthrough play in 1997, and how the ghost stories – monologues, really – told by characters in a pub had a way of seeping under your skin and lodging there? McPherson has honed his storytelling skill profoundly. Casual anecdotes hold poignant revelations, but now the characters also banter and tease. It makes the spooky edge of the story that much more chilling. And while you're still shivering a little at the change in mood, Sharkey goes upstairs to get the mail – and you can't help but laugh as all the other men onstage quickly replace the coffee in their cups with whiskey. Throughout the play, McPherson blends the eerie and the diurnal; like a good Celtic ballad, the moments where everything shifts come with no warning.
Not a moment feels forced or stagey. Conor McPherson also directed, and pulls rich performances from his assembled cast. The hodge-podge assortment of men is in its own way a family. Morse's Sharkey, by turns weary, sullen, and conciliatory, exudes a kind of power that makes you hope against hope for things to turn out well for him, even while he expresses the hang-dog glumness of a condemned man. As Ivan, Conleth prompts amusement as well as exasperation. Rae Smith's set and costumes perfectly embody the dinginess of a male hang-out, from the dust on the stereo and the scrawny Christmas tree in a corner to the mismatched stripey pajamas and flannel shirt that Sharkey wears.
Drink is a devil of a character in the play too – it's the old demon whiskey that provokes Ivan into a fight with his wife, for example. Richard has gone blind through falling into a dustbin – drink is not mentioned, but it's hard to avoid the suspicion that he was drunk at the time, since we never see Richard without a drink in his hand and wanting another. Conor McPherson fought his own battles with alcoholism, to the point where he had to be hospitalized seven years ago with an inflamed pancreas. But for all that, it's undeniable that some of the drunkenness is temptingly merry. There's no easy association of evil with alcohol going on here. Demon rum may have some obvious side effects, but the real battle is with the demons the characters face down in their souls – failure, regret, the inability to connect with other people, missed opportunities.
And then there's the real demon, who appears in human flesh as Mr. Lockhart (Ciáran Hinds), a nattily dressed stranger brought to the house by Nicky (Sean Mahon). He's looking for a card game. When everyone but Sharkey and Lockhart runs offstage to chase away the winos – a group of homeless drunks who loiter around Richard's house, whose presence lends a surreal touch of mysticism to the story – Lockhart reveals that he's really come for a rematch. He played Sharkey once before, you see: when Sharkey was in jail for beating up a homeless man. Sharkey won, so Lockhart arranged for Sharkey to be released – although the homeless man died. After he assails Sharkey with "What chance haven't you f***ed up?" Sharkey, taken aback, asks, "Who are you again?"
At first, Lockhart warns him off, with "Don't make me say it," but made angry by Sharkey's scoffing, he waves a hand and causes Sharkey to howl in pain, then he lets out one of his first thrilling torrents of poetry: "I'm the son of the morning, Sharkey, I'm the snake in the garden." He rages against his human pawns, and against the Lord as well, in a truly terrifying voice. Yet he's suave enough that when Richard comes back and calls him "a real gent" and throws the cards in the air, we understand his appeal. And that's only the end of Act One.
Act Two delivers on its promise of a tale of the battle for a soul. Sharkey's soul is the highest plum, but it isn't the only one on the table, although it's the only one being wagered on. Ivan, in tears about his marriage, may have been responsible for a hotel fire that killed two families. But when Lockhart reveals that he can't really hear music, and that it all sounds like noise to him, Ivan chews thoughtfully on some candy before reluctantly turning off the radio. What Irishman wouldn't be suspicious of a fellow who doesn't like music – not any kind of music?
Nicky, who at first seems just a shallow poser in a fake Ver-saaa-chi jacket, shows himself to be a loyal, sincerely friendly fellow without a mean bone in his body. Richard, blind, old, and dependent on his brother, truly loves God and can see his design even in the gaze of a bluebottle fly. But it's Lockhart's devil who steals the show, and your heart, with a long, chilling monologue about Hell that begins "I'm the power that keeps us all apart – aren't I worth saving? Evidently not. He loves you." Once again, Lockhart has arranged that he and Sharkey are alone on stage. As he describes Hell, a moon rises behind the house, and the stars flash cold. "Even He's sick of you. You're locked in a space that's smaller than a coffin, which is lying a thousand miles down just under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch-black sea."
McPherson's devil earns your pity but not your support. He tells Sharkey that he will not be able to die (and thus end the pain of Hell) – "because of what you did. And what you didn't do." The second part of the sentence doesn't appear in the published script – but it's crucial. It's where you realize that the devil, too, is an angel, that even he works for the Lord. It's a chilling moment in the theatre – surely nobody can hear the speech without quickly flashing on all those tender, brave, loving things we haven't done.
We know it's a game of poker. Only the devil or Sharkey can win. The decks are not stacked, and the game is fair. Until the last moment of the play, you can't be sure who will win. But you'll know one thing: whatever happens, the devil loses. It's man that God loves.
And anyone lucky enough to be human is blessed indeed.
Presented by Ostar Productions, Bob Boyett, Roy Furman, Lawrence Horowitz, Jam Theatricals, Bill Rollnick/Nancy Ellison Rollnick, James D'Orta, Thomas S. Murphy, Ralph Guild/Jon Avnet, Philip Geier/Keough Partners, Eric Falkenstein/Max OnStage.
At the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC.
Dec. 6 - April 13. Tue. - Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com
Author: Gwen Orel
Gwen Orel has been in love with Celtic music since she was a teenager. Founder of the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Back Stage. For the past two years, she has produced Celtic music for the Folk Project, New Jersey.