Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bitterness, Whimsy And Blarney

A couple of years ago, our landlady back in Minneapolis, a former drama teacher at the boys’ school I attended and one of the most assiduous theater-goers I have ever encountered, declared that she had “had it up to here” with Irish plays and that she would henceforth be observing a five-year moratorium with regard to the work of contemporary Irish playwrights.

Her frustration, I believe, was the result of the sameness of current Irish plays and Irish playwrights. Small-scale domestic dramas, concocted with a mixture of bitterness, whimsy and blarney, have been the typical Irish export the last several years. These Irish explorations of the mundane have been lauded as profound analyses of the human condition in some quarters and dismissed as insufferable claptrap in others.

I thought of our landlady last night during Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer”. Had she attended the play, our former landlady would, I believe, have walked out long before intermission.

“The Seafarer” takes place on Christmas Eve in a shabby house on the outskirts of Dublin. Two down-on-their-luck brothers, both in their fifties (and one recently blinded), occupy the premises. For the holiday, they are joined by three other men, all misfits in one way or another (and all blinded to the world around them in one way or another). The five men proceed to spend Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning together, talking, squabbling—and drinking.

That, in a nutshell, is the play.

Some of the dialogue is funny and some of the dialogue is sad, but much of the dialogue is simply boring, infused with all sorts of emotion-tugging touches that strike jarring chords. The audience is invited to view these seedy proceedings as a microcosm of the world at large, seeing itself in the drunken gyrations of five not particularly amusing, not particularly bright and not particularly admirable men trying to come to terms with their personal shortcomings and the past mistakes of their lives. At play’s end, the audience is asked to accord these men a measure of dignity, sympathy and respect.

This is not easy to do because, throughout the play, the author has ladled onto his tale layer upon layer of jejune spirituality and ersatz pleas for redemption and forgiveness. Such ladling, with the heaviest of spatulas, is all very conniving and all very unconvincing—and, ultimately, very off-putting. In order to accept the premise of the play, the viewer is required to check his brain at the door. Such a requirement is never a formula for success in the realm of genuine drama.

Faith, family, and the tongue-loosing power of drink: those are McPherson’s themes. I have seen this tired Irish recipe a hundred times, and never once have I found it fresh or appealing. Were not such conventions insufferably stale no later than 1900?

McPherson introduces a couple of twists in “The Seafarer”—there are absurdist elements in the plot (one of the Christmas visitors turns out to be Satan) and a wildly out-of-date and totally unexpected misogyny rears its head at frequent intervals—but the play, fundamentally, lacks freshness and originality.

Even the play’s poker game with the devil, with its alleged high stakes and on which the denouement hinges, is old, old hat by now. Had not McPherson seen or heard (or at least read the libretto of) “The Rake’s Progress” before writing his script?

There is not much to the play other than a few good lines, a few feeble laughs, and a couple of passable speeches. The first act is tedious, the resolution in the second act wan and unsatisfying (and the timing seriously misjudged). Why has this play become one of the most-performed plays in America over the last year?

The answer to that question, I believe, lies in its production requirements. The play calls for a very small cast and may be produced on the tightest of budgets (any stage designer operating on a shoestring can construct an onstage hovel). “The Seafarer” may be mounted at minimal expense by small theater companies all over the country and occupy the annual repertory slot reserved for “contemporary” drama, fulfilling two requirements of a repertory season in a single stroke.

There is no other rationale to account for the play’s current bout of popularity.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Seafarer” was the second Boston-area production of the play within the last year. (Joshua and I did not attend last year’s production by SpeakEasy Stage Company.)

Mid-Atlantic accents aside, the Merrimack production was quite good. The quality of the acting was about as fine as one might expect at a small repertory theater company, and the stage design was at a high level. The weaknesses of the script, thankfully, were not magnified by inept stage presentation. That is the best thing I can say about our trip to Lowell (home of Merrimack Repertory Theatre).

“The Seafarer”—whose title is borrowed from the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name—has received mostly respectful reviews by American theater critics since the play’s American premiere two years ago (in a Broadway presentation directed by the playwright, based upon The National Theatre Of Britain production).

I cannot account for such notices. The play is a bunch of blarney.

Before the play, Josh and I ate dinner at a Greek restaurant in downtown Lowell. Our dinner sustained us throughout the two-and-a-half hours of “The Seafarer” (whose text should have been trimmed by forty per cent and whose intermission should have been abandoned).

We started with Avgolemono (soup made with chicken, rice, egg and lemon), followed that up with Horiatiki (a Greek salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, olives and Feta cheese), and continued with stuffed grape leaves (beef, rice and seasonings in vine leaves, with an egg-lemon sauce). We ordered Mousaka for our main course. We finished up with Baklava for dessert.

The place was plebian, but the food was good.

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