Complimenting the set at a play can come off like praising a film's cinematography --a convenient way to avoid saying you didn't like the show. And indeed, even patrons who were disappointed in Seafarer raved about the set, which recreated the present-day living room of a decrepit house on the outskirts of Dublin, home to the action of this at once earthy and supernatural Conor McPherson comedy.
While I did enjoy Seafarer (which runs through Sun., Feb. 15), the set was a big reason. City's scenic design is always top-notch, and sometimes spectacular; I'm thinking especially of the multi-level suggestion of a teeming small-town apartment building in 2004's Gompers. But the scenic design for Seafarer comes courtesy of someone relatively new in town: Narelle Sissons.
Sissons is a big name in New York, with credits including the recent Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Here, she collaborated with City artistic director Tracy Brigden (who also directed Seafarer) on what might be the biggest City set yet, seeming to take up every possible inch of the proscenium and more. It's meticulously shoddy, with its half-crushed, finger-grimed furniture; smoke-smudged walls; ceramic knick-knacks; and ceiling shorn of plaster down to the lathe. Maybe best of all, the whole thing's tilted up at stage left, an apt visual metaphor for the rough sailing to be experienced by the titular protagonist, as well as for the play's generally drunken milieu: The first half hour of the story, which begins on the morning of a Christmas Eve, seems to consist largely of hangover jokes.
McPherson isn't known for his strong plots. And if Seafarer is considered his most narratively developed play (it is), I can see why: It's a pretty slender story, albeit built around a wager with the devil. But the characters are wonderfully sketched and the performances are mostly top-notch, particularly Noble Shropshire's comedic (yet incisively pathetic) self-pity as Richard, the title character's blind elder brother. The script's biggest pleasure is surely McPherson's vivid dialogue among these drunken men. It boasts, among other things, the funniest excuse a drunk could give for accepting another drink: The character, played by Marty Giles, has lost his glasses, and having found himself in a bar, he explains, "I couldn't see who to say no to."
But Sissons (currently teaching scenography at Carnegie Mellon) has created a set that, though without a line of dialogue, is a character in itself. My favorite touch sat off to one side: An ancient console stereo, still in place though its function has been superseded by the little egg-shaped portable tape-player, about 1-100th its size, sitting atop it. It was the perfect analog for the veneer of coping these men had laid over their generally feckless personal histories. In McPherson's telling, the past still took up the most space -- but, this being comedy, the lads prove just lucky enough to get by.