The Irish Repertory Theatre is bringing Conor McPherson's modern day miracle play The Seafarer to its main stage this week starring Matthew Broderick as the mysterious Mr. Lockhart.
Regret. It sneaks up on you. The worst moments of your life can start to flash before your eyes like a piercing film montage just before you sleep, and when it happens there usually isn't much you can do about it.
Christmas seems to be ground zero for this kind of piercing remorse and no one knows that better than Conor McPherson, the most Irish of playwrights, whose characters seem hardwired to start regretting all their major life decisions just moments after making them.
For years now McPherson's long line of hangdog mostly male characters have traded in long nights of regretful what-if's and if-only's. He has more or less cornered the market on stoic Irish males who wouldn't dream of burdening you with their personal problems until they quietly reach their wits end
So anyone who knows Ireland knows just how well he gets inside the heads of an average Irish male. In The Seafarer, perhaps McPherson's most bluntly supernatural play, the protagonists are two warring brothers at Christmas time who can't seem to find a way to connect.
“It's great to be back on the boards after all these years,” says Tim Ruddy, who plays Nicky in the about to open play. Ruddy, a well known actor and writer, has been working as an acclaimed playwright in his own right in recent years (his Off-Broadway play The Internationalist was a critical hit in 2015 after being performed at Origin Theater Company’s 1st Irish Theater Festival in 2013).
“After The Internationalist I write another play and then a work that has turned out to be a TV series. I still have the acting bug but it's hard to strike the right kind of survival equation when it comes to acting in this city.”
The Irish Rep is like a home for home for Irish actors here in New York, he says. “It's pretty much mostly where I have worked here. I've worked as an actor there and I've worked as a director there. I was talking with the other actors in the show about how we can't think of any other theatre that is like the Rep in the way they treat you and the ambience they create. Producing director Ciaran O'Reilly and Artistic Director Charlotte Moore make you feel so welcome. It's a very creative space to be in.”The precariousness of the theatre life is still an issue for the Irish actors working in New York, he says. “I don't know about their funding or how they keep it going. It's one of the very few fully functioning successful repertory theatre that does back to back productions. It's incredible that they found the space when they did and they've managed to hold on to it all these years through theatre.”
For Ruddy the decision to get on board was simple, he admires McPherson's scripts. “I love the basic simple humanity of the characters, the straightforward vulnerability and ordinariness of them in this play that is slightly mystical, slightly paranormal. Both of his plays The Weir and The Seafarer have this slightly paranormal element threading through them. For an actor its great language and a joy to play because he writes about characters who are dealing with their own demons (quite literally, as it turns out in The Seafarer).
But what's unique about McPherson is that his characters are more often facing up to themselves than to problems in the outside world or even to outside characters. It's the secrets that they're carrying around inside that can hurt them.
A classic example is the character of Sharky in The Seafarer. He's been carrying around all of these demons for years and he finally he has to confront them when a literal demon comes into his life in the form of Mr. Lockhart (played by Matthew Broderick).
McPherson knows the stoic Irishman in his bones. He has been to the dark side himself, Ruddy says, through his openly admitted years of alcoholism. “There's an interview he did with Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show where he talks about going to the dark side in the days when he was drinking, but he brought something back. I think The Seafarer is what he brought back. To me it's about McPherson confronting the demons that he met because this play is doused in alcohol. A lot of the circumstances that unfold in the play get their origin though booze.”
What is alcohol but an opportunity to medicate yourself after all? It's that awareness that undercuts the play. “It's hard not to enjoy working on a McPherson play and as it happens Matthew Broderick is one of the nicest people I have ever met in the business. There's a very chilled out atmosphere in rehearsal and I think its because things are going well.”
Irish actor Michael Mellamphy agrees that the play are the venue are equally special. “It's like going into your favorite class in school,” he laughs.
There's no clear route to a life on stage for most kids in Ireland and Mellamphy was no exception. “I can remember my Ma going down to a parent and teacher meeting in the school and telling the teachers that I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to go to drama school and I had a teacher with the foresight to say if he wants to do it let him do it, he'll be miserable otherwise. Like a lot of Irish actors he didn't come from a family with a background in theatre, but they were very supportive. They were behind me and I was very fortunate in that regard.”
Born in Dublin, Mellamphy grew up in Cork, with in Ireland practically amounts to dual citizenship. “I'm the best and the worst of both worlds. I'd go back and forth every summer for my holidays and they'd give me a terrible slagging both places. In one place I was a jackeen and in the other a culchie so I was training on my accent from an early age.”
Like Ruddy, Mellamphy came on board because it was the Rep and because the play is The Seafarer, which he considers McPherson's greatest work.
“I don't want to give the story away for those who might not have seen it but Matthew is fantastic in his role,” he says. “It's great to be around him and learn from him. He's very funny and he's just a joy to work with. In reality he's a very down to earth guy. The brilliance of Ciaran and Charlotte is that they put casts together that just gel.”
The Seafarer starts previews on March 30, for tickets call 212-727-2737.