A few sodden old friends, one of them recently gone blind and the others disabled by drink or despair, get together in a grimy Dublin basement to play cards on Christmas Eve. The Devil joins in. Merry Christmas!
OK, so "The Seafarer" is a far cry from "The Nutcracker." For a certain strain of holiday reveler, however, Conor McPherson's dark yet sneakily redemptive tale strikes exactly the right note of mournful cheer. And, in the hands of director Carmel O'Reilly, the SpeakEasy Stage Company's production at the Boston Center for the Arts keeps that note resonating throughout.
It's easy with McPherson to let the tone go either too bleak or too rowdy; his plays are both, but they must be both at once, not one or the other. O'Reilly finds this elusive balance from our first glimpse of J. Michael Griggs's dingy, bottle-strewn set, and she never lets it slip.
In this she's greatly aided by the finely modulated performance of Billy Meleady as Sharky, the newly (and precariously) sober ex-fisherman around whom McPherson's infernally high-stakes poker game revolves. Sharky is just back from a spell in the more prosperous County Clare, home to take care of his older brother, Richard, after an accident has robbed Richard of his sight. Richard, however, doesn't particularly want taking care of; he'd rather just keep drinking with his pals, the hapless Ivan and the slick Nicky (who is, not coincidentally, now living with Sharky's ex).
Meleady gives Sharky a weary, wary grace amid the drunken stumbling and cursing of his mates; he's too recently cleaned up to think himself truly above the muck, and though he's revolted by it he's not passing judgment nearly so harshly as they imagine - he's just trying to stay clear of it. And when the mysterious visitor who tags along with Nicky, Mr. Lockhart, reveals his identity and his purpose (it's not spoiling much to say that he's playing for more than Sharky's euros), Meleady's stillness and level gaze reveal exactly how Sharky takes the news: not with shock but with a resigned acceptance of a long-delayed fate.
Derry Woodhouse's Mr. Lockhart, meanwhile, has the smooth, unassuming good looks of a younger Liam Neeson, and the quietly engaging manner to match. He's a handsome devil, to be sure, and one who's also capable of fearsome rages; Woodhouse unlooses the inner fires only intermittently, but each time they burn frighteningly bright.
Bob Colonna's work as Richard feels fuzzier - sometimes too fuzzy, even for a character that's drunk from morning to midnight and beyond, because we can't always be sure that it's the character and not the actor who's groping for his next words. Still, Colonna gives Richard a touching, childish peevishness in his demands on Sharky, and the brothers' final scene together is genuinely, tentatively touching.
Ciaran Crawford is boyish and volatile as Nicky. As for Ivan, the pal who just popped in for a pint and stayed for an ocean of whiskey, stout, and home-brewed poteen - who knew Larry Coen was Irish? OK, maybe he isn't, but you'd never guess it from the performance he gives here. It's not just the accent, though that's spot-on; it's the attitude, the way his Ivan combines a quiet boozy glow with a haunting undercurrent of sorrow. He's a hilarious character, and all the sadder for being so funny.
That's exactly the kind of Irish that McPherson speaks. And he's lucky to have found, in O'Reilly and in the actors she encourages to work so freely, a handful of native speakers. Slainte!
That's Irish, by the way, for "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.