There’s an old Irish proverb that says man to the hills, woman to the shore. It’s an idea that drew the attention of Seamus Heaney once, who found the contrast humorous and unsettling. Life brings us together and life pulls us apart he realized, and in between those tensions we all live. 

In Sea Marks, a funny, unsettling and rather beautiful two-hander now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, the Irish man is played by Rep regular Patrick Fitzgerald and the British woman by Tony nominee Xanthe Elbrick. 

First we meet Colm (Fitzgerald), a forty-something west of Ireland fisherman who lives a challenging life by the sea, and then we meet the object of his fascination, Timothea (Elbrick). 

A chance meeting between the pair leads Colm to later write her a letter in the hope of making a romantic connection. But time has passed and Timothea has no memory of her wooer at all.

Things change when she receives the next letters. It turns out that Colm has the rare gift of being able to paint vivid pictures with words. Timothea is first beguiled by his turn of phrase, and then by the personality behind the words. 

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has cast this play so well that rapport between the pair leaps to life in their first moments together. Fitzgerald’s Colm has an affable, countrified air at first that masks his formidable intelligence.

Sartorially he’s a walking man of Aran but underneath? It’s one of the pleasures of the production that it takes its time to reveal both characters.

Colm has intuitively pursued the one person who will challenge his every piety and bring out what has been long dormant in him; from his unlived erotic life to his gift for poetry, she opens doors in his imagination that rescue his spirit and – in his mid-forties – finally allow him to grow up. 

As the play opens there’s a lot of fun to be had in Fitzgerald’s lively performance, which sets the play’s tone but also sets the audience up a little. 

In playwright Gardner McKay’s hands Colm emerges first as a free spirited Irish suitor who may just be pursuing someone a little out of his league and certainly out of his everyday world. But soon we come to realize that Colm is one of life’s beautiful misfits, neither fully at home on sea or land, or indeed even in his own skin.

As Timothea, Elbrick creates a character worthy of anyone’s admiration. She’s all antic energy and smarts, in a charismatic and compelling stage performance that instantly explains Colm’s fascination with her.

In scene after scene, Elbrick matches Fitzgerald in both subtlety and depth as the play’s themes are revealed. Although it’s fair to say that Sea Marks is a rather cerebral script, it still provides for a marvelous degree of awkward physical comedy. 

Colm and Timothy’s near disastrous first night together, which includes his first fumbling attempts at lovemaking, is watch it through your fingers embarrassing and yet simultaneously completely endearing. 

Crucially, neither Fitzgerald nor Elbrick get ahead of their characters or ever condescend to comment on them. Instead they simply inhabit their respective roles and trust the text and the production to reveal the plays themes. 

O’Reilly is a playwright’s ideal director in other words, because his instinct with Sea Marks is to be as unobtrusive as possible, and just like Colm’s long marvelous letters let the words create the world.

Tonally and thematically this show is quite an unusual production for the Rep, but longtime admirers of their work know how much they delight in surpassing your expectations, which Sea Marks certainly does.

It’s a play that celebrates creativity and inspiration which makes it a perfect fit for a company that has done more than almost any other in Manhattan to celebrate the primacy of the written word. 

O’Reilly knows that the Irish will cross hill and shore to find the right words, and so his lovely, languid production trusts the audience to unravel the play’s meaning. Love takes us out of ourselves Sea Marks shows us, only to gently return us to ourselves at a later date and with a greater understanding.  

When Colm crosses the sea to Liverpool to live with his new love he encounters a new life with new challenges, even as the shadow cast by his old one grow darker. This idea is poetically underlined by Charlie Corcoran’s outstanding set that manages to magically conjure both the fishing life of an island village and the suburban sprawl of Liverpool with ease. 

M. Florian Staab’s sound design also strongly merits a mention for the distant seagulls and gently crashing waves at the top of the show, which carries you toward the plays coastal setting in a matter of seconds. 

But it’s the off the charts chemistry and tenderness between Fitzgerald and Elbrick, who understand that deep friendship is as important as erotic love, that really carry the show. Alternating easily between anger and hilarity in the same scene, they take enormous care to match each other rather than grandstand individually, which makes this impeccably acted productions one of the most accomplished on a New York stage this season. 

Much of what draws Colm and Timothea together quickly begins to pull them apart, the play shows us. His skill with the written word at first intrigues her, then it convinces her he has a gift, and finally it tears at their relationship as it becomes clear it’s a gift that may be wholly dependent on his eventual return to the place that first inspired him. 

So Sea Marks is about the landscape that has made us, the sea that echoes our own depths and the difficulty of bridging one from the other. It’s an Irish play insofar as its comfortable exploring this very Celtic dual awareness and it has found the ideal actors and director at the Irish Rep.

Fitzgerald’s Beckettian coif is matched by his unassailable physical presence as an island man as comfortable piloting a currach as knitting a hat. He makes you believe he’s a man of the sea in the play’s first moments, and he delivers a startlingly accomplished performance, adding layer and layer to his portrait until he’s magically inhabited his character. 

Elbrick is equally impressive, being a flinty and mercurial stage presence that alternates between passion and philosophy with ease. As the play progresses we begin to understand how much Colm owes to her, as she becomes his only conduit to the outside world, a world that has somehow passed him by for so long. 

There’s also a lovely battle between first love and rueful middle-aged heartache animating Sea Marks, which makes it a surprisingly engrossing experience, but it’s the work of the director and these two supremely talented actors that make the show absolutely unmissable. 

The Irish Rep has already achieved an enviable reputation as one of the most accomplished theaters in the nation, but with Sea Marks they remind us that reputation was often built on taking the kind of creative risks that every now and again pay off as handsomely as this show does.

For tickets and showtimes go here