NEW YORK—Conor McPherson isn't the first playwright to ponder the nature of hell. He's not even the first to conjure the devil himself to the theater (and that's not a veiled reference to either Broadway producers or their stagehands).
Christopher Marlowe did a good job of proffering Beelzebub to paying customers as far back as 1589, even if that Renaissance devil was much less interested in smoked salmon, poker and mince pies than McPherson's contemporary Irish incarnation.
But what makes McPherson's latest Broadway play so fresh and stimulating is what he has to say about hell. In "The Seafarer," which arrives in a National Theatre production directed in lively fashion by the playwright and featuring a superb ensemble cast, hell is defined not as the usual toasty furnace for the fallen, but as the eternal destination of the perpetually self-loathing.
McPherson has long known how to send chills down an audience's collective spine, and he once again proves his mettle with "Seafarer," which was to open Thursday night on Broadway. To understand hell, we're told, you just have to recall when "you see all the people who seem to live in another world all snuggled up together in the warmth of a tavern or a cozy little house, and you just walk and walk and walk and you're on your own and nobody knows who you are."
Well, hell. Who has not been there?
"The Seafarer," like most of McPherson's plays, is fundamentally a tall Irish yarn containing colorful, unconsciously lyrical persons who drink far too much for their good. But unlike his prior monologue-dominated efforts, "The Seafarer" is much more a well-made, five-character play, set during a single night on the eve of Christmas and following a largely traditional structure. Slow to fire up its engines and dominated by seemingly ordinary conversation, "Seafarer" doesn't strike you as a massively ambitious play.
But it is far more of one than you first think.
Two working-class brothers in late middle age live together on the Irish coast, just north of Dublin. Richard (Jim Norton, who played the role in London) is full of booze and blarney, despite recently going blind. His younger brother Sharky (David Morse) is the caretaker of this pathetic household, an all-male refugee camp visited by pathetic old drinking buddies Ivan (played by the superb Irish actor Conleth Hill) and Nicky (Sean Mahon).
Then a stranger arrives, as they often do in plays such as this.
Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds, best known here for Gaius Julius Caesar in HBO's "Rome") seems to know a lot about Sharky and what sins he may have committed in the past. And he doesn't seem very fond of Christmas.
The idea of the devil as a drunken Irishman is occasion, as one might expect, for the kind of whimsical gallows humor in which McPherson specializes. Norton's Richard, consciously so, functions as a classic ignorant and immobile patriarch. And there are a few low-rent, Gothic tricks involving the Virgin Mary on the wall.
But more than once, it occurs to the male viewer at least, that McPherson has precisely depicted what passes for male-on-male intimacy in communities such as this. Heck, I have a few sincere old friendships of my own based almost entirely on mutual insults.
Still if that were all there were to "The Seafarer," it would be little more than a shallow, pleasurable entertainment. Actually, there is a good deal more -- much of which flows from this fine play's determination to stay mostly a realistic drama, even though one of the characters says he's come to claim another's soul. As played with complexity by Hinds, Lockhart is no prince of darkness, but a devil unsure of himself and the worse for drink.
The fine actor Morse draws you into Sharkey's quiet desperation. And thematically, the play itself draws you into its speculation that our worries about the next world are mostly reflections of our neuroses from the current one.
McPherson at least leaves open the possibility that all the otherworldly chatter is nothing more than that -- the heebie-jeebies of lost souls, drinking themselves into oblivion. If we love ourselves, then hell doesn't come up. Maybe. The piece allows for many interpretations.
But it makes a most convincing case that hell for McPherson and his boys might just be the absence of women.
"The Seafarer" plays on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200.