Males gathering to yak about life, and how to survive it, with a few drinks in hand to lubricate the process have been a plot starter as long as there has been theater.
Eugene O’Neill centers “The Iceman Cometh” in a bar; one character hasn’t left that unfriendly confine for 20 years. Shakespeare starts “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with disputatious guys rehashing the drunken revelry of a few nights earlier. Earliest of all, Euripides in the 400s B.C. wouldn’t have succeeded without talk and beverages.
The five actors on stage of the Laguna Playhouse in “The Seafarer,” which opened Sunday, checked additional recognizable boxes. It’s set in Ireland. (Apologies for reinforcing a stereotype, but did I mention drinking? Yes.) It’s Christmas Eve. (Did I mention a visit from an otherworldly spirit? No, but we see one.) Will the characters argue, curse, play cards? (Ya think?)
Irish playwright Conor McPherson isn’t content to rest on these canards. He uses them, true, but where he and this well-realized production take us is not just entertaining raucousness — though there’s plenty of that — but a deeper caterwauling dive to a place where faith and the abyss face off and struggle for a soul.
If the theme for this 2007 play sounds as if it’s from another age, it is. The source material McPherson draws from is an anonymous 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem known as the Exeter Book. In 1912, poet Ezra Pound translated the first 99 lines; the Laguna Playhouse program generously includes the Pound poem.
The setup: We see a snug but going-to-seed lower middle-class house north of Dublin. Empties — cans and bottles — decorate every table surface. In Stephen Gifford’s scenic design, this dwelling is curiously mounted on a narrow, glittering black ribbon of what appears to be coal, a hint, perhaps, of a hellish foundation for everything to come?
The householder is Richard, naturally cantankerous and a boisterous, avid drinker (“it’s called being festive!”) who has lost his sight and is aging quickly. He relies on — bullies, basically — Sharky, his recently returned, trying-to-dry-out alcoholic brother.
The brothers, one eagerly, the other reluctantly, drink Christmas Eve into Christmas morning with a hungover pal, Ivan, who has mislaid his glasses. Nicky, an acquaintance, arrives for the festivities. Nicky unexpectedly brings along a newly met carousing comrade, referred to formally as Mr. Lockhart.
Mr. Lockhart, it turns out, loves to play cards with all manner of souls on Christmas Eve. While money changes hands, Lockhart has bigger winnings in mind. In a couple of scenes between the two characters with the others offstage we discover what happened 25 years earlier and what the price of a losing hand of poker will cost (“We had a deal, Sharky!”).
If this theatrical territory sounds a little familiar — closer to the Faustian bargain than to “Damn Yankees” — know that McPherson is, most importantly, an absorbing storyteller. During the two acts in director Michael Matthews’ tone-perfect telling, the outside world shrinks away, an audience raptly immersed in each curse, laugh, bellow and silence.
The key to Matthews’ success began at the start of his directorial mission: casting. For this play to work, we need five actors in utter balance, forging unique identities but able to bellow over the top of the next one in a way that makes the flaws in each person emerge in relationship to the larger ensemble.
Brothers Richard and Sharky couldn’t be physically more dissimilar, but in the hands of stalwart Los Angeles stage actors John Vickery and JD Cullum, they strike an ideal contrast of brothers, the differences emanating from where one starts and the other leaves off.
Stephen Caffrey’s Mr. Lockhart reminded me of a few bosses I worked for over the years, the bluff, superficially chummy sort one feared instinctively, knowing self-interest was exclusively at the heart of every exchange. Caffrey summons rage from Mr. Lockhart’s shards of humor; he has an equally impressive ability to generate a gale of bile.
As Ivan, the faithful friend and hanger-on — and a surprising agent for the denouement — Michael A. Shepperd channels the temperament of mate, sounding board and sneaky drainer of drinks. Nick was a fifth wheel in terms of stage time, but John Colella in the role is strong as observer, disbeliever and driver of the action during the card game that powers Act Two. His panicked dash up some stairs to field a call from his wife, wondering where the hell he is, and his subsequent smug announcement of having bought himself an extra hour of freedom tolls a shameful bell of authenticity.
An interesting tangent to “The Seafarer” is the absence of women. The specter of them, however, haunts the proceedings.
Wives are forces to be feared, especially when it’s boozing time. And a Christmas gift of CDs for Sharky from a potential romantic interest has the tranquilizing quality of a sonic balm for the characters except Mr. Lockhart, who screams he can’t abide the humanizing sound of music.
The only woman we see is a picture on a wall that, quite literally, reflects a final, welcome light on the outcome.