One Irishman might entertain you for an evening with yarns. When playwright Conor McPherson brings five of them together in The Seafarer and fuels their conversation with pints of Harp and shots of poteen (Irish moonshine), the opportunities expand exponentially. With a sterling ensemble directed by D. Lynn Meyers at Ensemble Theatre, it’s the recipe for a memorable evening of theater.
On Christmas Eve, four hard-drinking buddies come together to booze and gamble and argue in the cluttered home of two brothers, loquacious and recently blind Richard (Joneal Joplin) and sullen Sharky (Adrian Sparks), who’s on the wagon. They’re joined by Ivan (John LiBrizzi), Nicky (Brian Isaac Phillips) and a mysterious, dapper guest, Mr. Lockhart (Dennis Parlato).
He’s there to collect a debt from Sharky from many years before, whose only chance is a desperate card game. The production’s actors are like a string quartet, with Parlato as a smarmy, dissonant soloist. Fascinating individually, they make raucous, linguistic music together, an ensemble as good as any you’ll see onstage this season.
McPherson’s script is a rollicking narrative. His plays seen on Cincinnati stages in recent years are often built around monologues like Lockhart’s dissertation on the nature of Hell, a description to make your blood run cold, if you don’t freeze solid. But The Seafarer excels at interweaving character and personality: The brothers are constantly at odds, yet we sense their connection beneath Richard’s manipulation and Sharky’s grumbling. Ivan and Nicky are na´ve foils, but they keep the tension on the rise in the seesaw poker game. The resolution is not what you might expect.
An avalanche of tacky Christmas decorations and religious paraphernalia assembled by Shannon Rae Lutz enlivens Brian c. Mehring’s dingy basement apartment set. It will suck you in and make you feel as if you’ve experienced a personal near-miss at being pulled through “a hole in the wall.” And you’ll be glad you stopped by.
THE SEAFARER, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Oct. 28.