The literature on the subject seems fairly clear: negotiating with the devil is a bad idea. The devil holds all the good cards—infinite time, supernatural powers, all sorts of sinful temptations—and human will is notoriously weak, so the devil usually gets what he’s after.
And yet, people continue to make deals with the devil all the time, typically when they are at the lowest, most desperate point in their lives. That’s when the devil shows up and offers his stock deal: I’ll get you out of this mess in exchange for your immortal soul. Once out of trouble, the people in deal-with-the-devil stories always conveniently forget they ever struck such a bargain—until the devil comes to collect, at which point they start negotiating again. And so it goes, until the sad human’s soul is bubbling in the hot fry vats of hell.
Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer offers an entertaining twist on the devil-has-come-to-collect narrative. The action takes place on Christmas Eve in the flat of an Irishman, Richard (played by Allen Hamilton), whose brother Sharky (Stephen Yoakam) has come to visit for the holidays. A friend stops by to play some poker and brings with him a well-dressed gentleman, Mr. Lockhart (Phil Kilbourne), who turns out to be the devil, and he’s come to collect on a debt. Turns out Sharky, in exchange for a favor twenty-five years earlier, agreed to let the devil play a hand of poker for Sharky’s soul at some point down the road—and that time has come.
Why the devil needs to play such games with people I don’t know. But I do know that if I were playing a winner-take-all hand of poker with the devil for my immortal soul, I would not let the devil deal. Those details aside, what saves The Seafarer from becoming just another devil-gets-his-due story is that it would be an engaging play full of entertaining banter even if the devil hadn’t come to the party. These guys are all hard-core Irishmen, blokes who are far more dedicated to liquor and laughter than they are to their wives. The proof: How many men do you know who play poker with their buddies on Christmas Eve? And the drunker they get, the more eloquent they become, especially Allen Hamilton as the bellicose romantic Richard, who is blind, half-crippled, and frequently hilarious, especially when he’s feeling “all Christmas-y” or leading the charge to chase away the “winos” and “hobos” who are constantly fouling his doorstep.
This is a Jungle Theater production, so the set is marvelous—or as marvelous as a dumpy apartment piled high with assorted junk can be—and the acting is first-rate. It’s not easy to make casual conversation between characters who have known each other forever seem natural, but every moment of this play feels as if you’re peeking in on the lives of Richard and Sharky and friends—lives that are unspectacular in every respect, save for the volume and duration of their drinking bouts. Also, the play is not without a gentle whiff of the Christmas spirit, so while it’s not exactly a holiday play, it is a play worth seeing during the holidays. It’s not the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol , certainly, and for that alone we can all be thankful.
The Seafarer continues at The Jungle Theater through Dec. 20.