Monday, November 17, 2008

Christmas with the Devil

Billy Meleady battles his demons - literally - in The Seafarer. Photos by Mike Lovett.

My friend Art Hennessey and I sometimes ruminate on the problem of assessing the value of plays per se when we can only perceive them through the shifting screen of performance (and no, reading it to yourself in your study is no substitute for performance, all you armchair Shakespeareans). Pompous thing that I am, I like to imagine that I can sense the quality of a text "through" such vagaries - at least to some extent. And while I'm not about to abandon that position (do I ever abandon my positions?), the new SpeakEasy Stage production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer (now through Dec. 13 at the BCA) does give me some new perspective on the problem.

First, some background. Last year I caught the New York premiere of McPherson's latest, under the direction of the author himself, with a cast which he had (mostly) brought with him from across the pond. The seasoned ensemble fit their roles just about perfectly, and the only actor I had qualms about - TV star David Morse, in the lead - always held up his end of the script, and managed to be quite gripping at its terrible climax. And in retrospect, it's clear that as director, McPherson perceived every weakness in his play - really his first fleshed-out, plot-driven drama - and disguised them well, punching up the action here or there, adding a song, and generally cutting against the material's depressing squalor with spry black humor.

Now perhaps it's unfair to compare a Broadway production to a Boston one - but then again, Scott Edmiston managed a re-thinking of Light in the Piazza that held up well to the New York original, so perhaps it isn't that unfair. And it must be admitted that much of the time, in the SpeakEasy version from director Carmel O'Reilly, The Seafarer is oft at sea, and only a shadow of its Broadway self. In short, this is one of the strongest plays SpeakEasy has done in years, yet it's one of their weaker productions.

True, some of the drama still works - not as devastatingly as it did on Broadway, mind you; but McPherson's spooky little fable about Christmas with the Devil has moments that are powerful enough to be director- and actor-proof, and at these climaxes for the most part O'Reilly stays out of the way. But elsewhere her lack of craft is evident as ever (she ran the ill-fated Súgán Theatre company, whose demise some people have blamed on my negative reviews). Once again, O'Reilly doesn't adequately block her scenes (but spreads her actors across the space at roughly 10-foot intervals), has little sense of pace or dramatic flow, and is generally so earnestly downbeat in her approach that it never occurs to her to cut against the surface of a play; one would never guess, for instance, from this gently dour version, at the wickedly antic tone McPherson brought to his foul first act.

Or maybe this is just a guy thing; maybe a woman could never perceive that alcoholism can be fun (although something tells me some women perceive that only too well!). But that cynical perception is key to The Seafarer - the lost souls drifting on a sea of spirits in McPherson's dingy flat are literally blind with drink, but they're that way because they enjoy it, and without that spark of pleasure the first act seems meandering and repetitious (because, perhaps, McPherson's dramaturgy is sometimes rather rough carpentry; prior to this he has written extended monologues). Only the central character, Sharky (Billy Meleady), is resisting the siren call of the bottle, and he's battling his demons with little support from his blinded brother Richard (Bob Colonna), or his nearly-daft neighbor Ivan (Larry Coen), who can only focus on scoring another wee drop as they slouch toward a particularly pathetic Christmas Eve.

But then a real demon shows up, in the person of Mr. Lockhart, a friendly chap who's stopped in for a card game. Only the suave stranger is hardly what he seems, and what's at stake in the last hand depends on a promise Sharky made long ago, in a prison cell - and the only thing he has to throw in the kitty this time is his mortal soul. It's a neat, time-tested set-up, and McPherson's sure touch somehow makes it all credible; the lights flicker once or twice, Mr. Lockhart hints at knowledge no human could possess, and we're suddenly transported back to the campfires of our youth, spellbound by tales of encounters with Old Nick. What gives this pitch fresh punch, of course, is its haunting resonance with Sharky's alcoholism, and his guilt at how it has ruined his life. He deserves to lose his soul - he's all but thrown it away anyhow - and he knows it. And Lockhart's vision of the cold loneliness of Hell is as utterly familiar to him as it is to anyone who's turned to the bottle for comfort (as McPherson, himself a former alcoholic, knows well).

It's these postcards from the afterlife, in fact, that make The Seafarer so memorable; soliloquy is McPherson's forte, and this time he's given the devil more than his due - Satan's evocation of not an inferno but a frozen waste, where the soul is confined forever in a space smaller than a coffin, may give you nightmares at least until Christmas. But what's most striking about this vision of the damned is its sense of desolate loss, its forlorn solitude. What makes Hell hell, Lockhart (or "locked-heart") insists, is that there's no one there to love you - just as there's no one to love the alcoholic - and we suddenly feel sympathy for the Devil when we perceive he feels nothing more keenly than his own loss of God. "Why does he love you, and not me?" he hisses, and his eternal hatred of all things human suddenly seems all too natural, and darkly tragic.

Or rather it would, except that director O'Reilly has made the mistake of casting her old colleague Derry Woodhouse as Lockhart; Mr. Woodhouse has his resources, but his essential gentleness is almost the polar opposite of what we expect from Old Scratch, and his (admittedly creepy) soft-spokenness makes him come off as a possible child molester, not a fallen angel. Compounding this problem is that as Sharky, the talented Billy Meleady (left, with Woodhouse) gives such a recessed performance that we never even guess at the springs of affection which could still redeem him from his fate. The rest of the cast is on firmer footing, although they can only support, not save, the play, and even here none of the performances had fully cohered by press night. As the blind and stingingly funny Richard, Bob Colonna gives probably the most satisfying performance, although he was hampered by memory problems and relied on a certain generically irascible attitude; still, I felt as his interpretation grew more lived-in and specific it could mature into something memorable. The reliable Larry Coen was likewise halfway there as the dazed, dorky Ivan; Coen understood the role, but hadn't yet spun it into the shambling piece of whimsy it has the potential to become. Meanwhile, as fifth wheel Nicky, Ciaran Crawford seemed competent and looked just right, but again hadn't begun to explore the feckless vanity of this seedy ladies' man.

The physical production was likewise slightly uninspired. Perhaps sensing the menace gap in the central role, sound designer Benjamin Emerson leaned heavily on the old whistling-wind sound effects, and lighting designer John Malinowski piled on the spooky lighting cues. J. Michael Griggs had a fairly good idea in suggesting Hell via a boarded-up, empty attic, but in spreading his set across the breadth of the Roberts Studio he inadvertently contributed to the show's lack of focus. Perhaps these all sound like small things. But I'm afraid with this play, the devil really is in the details.


  1. Mr Garvey... I've been reading your blog and reivews for years now. I enjoy your writing. In fact, I think you are a gifted writer and thoughtful person.

    This is probably the wrong place to put this comment, but since you personally trashed my work and those of many of my friends, I have to wonder about your motives.

    I'd like to start off with 1 main question.

    Could you please list the theater productions you have enjoyed and reviewed positively in the last few years (Streamers was one of them)?
    I can't think of more than 1 or two. What in your esteemed estimation is "great theater" and have you seen any in Boston lately?

    - john malinowski

  2. Hi John -

    We meet again! I don't think I'm going to list the theater productions I've reviewed positively in "the last few years" - the list would be far too long. Just in the last few weeks, I've given raves or near-raves to Tales of Hoffmann, In the Continuum, Show Boat, 42nd Street and November. I've given mixed but positive reviews to Light in the Piazza, Let Me Down Easy, Hay Fever, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The T Plays. That's five raves and five positive notices in a Boston season that has been noticeably weaker than usual (normally I can be even nicer).

    Over the spring and summer, I raved about Bye Bye Birdie, She Loves Me, A Delicate Balance, The Drowsy Chaperone, Travesties, Angels in America, Three Tall Women, Some Men, and Blithe Spirit, and gave mixed but positive reviews to many more. That's, let's see, fourteen raves and at least as many positive reviews.

    I'm not sure exactly how many raves you think I should deliver (although I imagine you think 100% would be a nice round number!). But since I post theater reviews between 100-120 times a year, it's clear that I give nearly 15% of what I see a rave, and at least another 15% a positive notice. So I give good reviews to between a quarter and a third of what I see.

    Surprised? You shouldn't be. I'm afraid the real surprise is how much larger a negative review looms in the minds of theatre people than a positive one (interestingly, you can only think of "one or two" positive reviews from me, when there have been more than fifteen times that number since Streamers).

    It's true that I don't mince words with shows that aren't worth audience's money, and even my raves include analysis rather than mere praise. I likewise grow short-tempered with established theater people who repeatedly don't deliver, yet remain cocooned in a swath of positive opinion due to their friends in the media. By that comment I don't mean you, personally - indeed, I'm sorry that you haven't figured in many (or maybe any) of my positive reviews. Believe it or not, I know how much a negative review, particularly one that seems unfair, can hurt.

    But I'm curious, given the actual data - which was always out there in the blog anyway - as to why or how you "doubt my motives." If you think I "target" various theatres or groups that you're a part of, rest assured I don't (even though that is, alas, the M.O. of several local reviewers, both in regards to critique AND praise). At the same time, I'm clearly aware of the local liberal political prejudices (which I actually share) toward minorities, and women (and the Irish!), and the tendency to fawn over the major universities (a predisposition I don't share), and I try to resist both mindsets when it comes to my reviewing. To my mind, a real Bostonian theatre culture is going to arise from the city's small theatres and actual residents, not its academic or corporate overlords. At the same time, I try to never allow those kinds of mental frames to interfere with my experience of actual art. In other words, I doubt the ART is going to put up anything worth seeing - and these days I have my doubts about the Huntington, too - but if it does, you'll hear about it from me.

    Beyond that, I wish there were some sort of aesthetic or critical program I espoused or followed, but the actual empirical data never seems to match any theoretical trajectory, so maybe that wish is a delusion. And I think my method has paid off; I've been doing this nearly five years, actually, and in that time, while I'm sure I've made "mistakes," I've made no really major bad calls - no Mauritius, no How Shakespeare Won the West - and that pretty much makes me unique in this little burg.

    The Seafarer is interesting in that regard - years ago, I was the only one pointing out the weaknesses in Carmel O'Reilly's directing. She was a woman, after all, and directing plays for the Irish, and her work was often disguised in an indecipherable brogue; her local praise was almost over-determined. One result of my cooler appraisal was her board president suggesting in print that I was a racist (the silly woman had no idea that I myself am Irish). Even given that irony, the smear didn't bother me that much, as several minority members whose work I have criticized have responded by telling me that if I didn't like their art, I must be a racist. You get used to that kind of self-defense. And eventually, as I predicted, O'Reilly's company failed, indicating that the city at large agreed with me.

    Now she's back, only directing a play that was an international success, for a theatre that's consistently among the best in Boston. And without the veil of obscurity (or the small budget) attached to many of her earlier projects, the lapses in her direction are harder to ignore. Indeed, the Herald gave the show a more scathing review than I did. Intriguingly, as that reviewer seems not to have seen a strong production of the text, she laid more of the blame for the production's failure at the feet of the playwright. Having seen the author's own production, it was clearer to me that while there are weaknesses in the play, they are highly surmountable, given astute direction and casting. Ms. O'Reilly simply wasn't up to the task.

    But don't worry, this little blog isn't enough to stop the momentum of her career. I think she's already slated for an upcoming show at the ART (Trojan Barbie) - a pleasing artistic confluence, in a way! I almost can't wait.

  3. I see I've only fanned the flames.
    Your response proves my point. Read what you wrote and look in the mirror.

    What you write reflects on you more than anyone else.

  4. Okay, whatever; the mirror's out, and I don't see any flames - but I know you do, and I could never convince you otherwise. Hope you feel better soon!

  5. Oops! Readers of this thread should know that Malinowski came back with one more bit of repartee - something like "I'm feeling fine, thank you!" that I mistakenly deleted. And I'm not surprised - I see Louise Kennedy raved about O'Reilly's directing this morning. To the discriminating, that's not exactly a recommendation (and again it's all but over-determined) but to the box office, it means a lot. Carolyn Clay also toed the girl's-club line in the Phoenix, although in that careful way that hints she actually knows better. (It seems Jenna Scherer is the only one you can count on to break ranks among the print critics.) Oh, well! However boring it may be, The Carmel O'Reilly Show continues. Bring on Trojan Barbie, Malibu Aeneas and the Trojan Horse Mobile!