The Jungle Theater takes a decidedly off-kilter approach to its holiday shows, as is clearly evident in “The Seafarer.” Conor McPherson’s latest play certainly takes place in the right season, and even has a miracle to boot, but this look at a bunch of boozy friends playing cards on the long Christmas Eve night in Dublin is anything but saccharine. Instead, the script bustles with the everyday obsessions, loves and longstanding guilt of a group of men who have seen their dreams fade with age, and an ace cast brings it all to crystal-clear life.
The story takes place in the grimy basement flat of brothers Richard and Sharky. The two don’t necessarily get along, but a recent accident has left Richard blind; Sharky, likely against his will, is back in Dublin taking care of his brother. Their Christmas party eventually also includes Ivan, a sloppy, sad sack friend, and Nicky, who is in a relationship with Sharky’s ex. Tagging along with Nicky is Mr. Lockhart, a well-groomed, nicely attired gent who turns out to be the embodiment of the devil. He’s come visiting Sharky to take up the second half of a wager made a quarter century ago: If he can beat the man at a hand of poker, he’ll take his immortal soul to the darkness of Hell.
Again, not your typical take on the holiday, but McPherson is a masterful writer who excels at mixing the spirit and the everyday (such as his amazing “Shining City,” which the Jungle presented last year), and the viewer is quickly drawn into the singular world that these characters inhabit.
Through the play as they trade stories, drink copious amounts of whiskey and beer and play hands of poker, we learn much about their failed dreams and sometimes horrific experiences. We also see the bonds that connect all of them together even when they are fighting.
The cast is led by Stephen Yoakam as Sharky and Allen Hamilton as Richard. The two craft the brotherly bond perfectly, be it Hamilton’s wry expression as he once again gets his way, or Yoakam’s nervous pacing as his very soul ends up on the line. Mark Rhein (Nicky) and Patrick Bailey (Ivan) keep characters that could have easily fallen into cliché — two drunken Irish lads (when haven’t you seen that?) — and shades them with all manner of humanity. And Phil Kilbourne is able to go from easy-going charm to absolute menace as the devil stand-in, Mr. Lockhart.
In a time of the year where there is so much forced cheer in life and on stage, it’s a thrill to see a show that is willing to dive fully into the darkness to find the light at the other side.
“The Seafarer” runs through Dec. 20 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are $28-$36. For information, call 612-822-7063 or visit online.