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Review: "The Seafarer"

Harlequin Productions rewards the patient

It's Christmas Eve in Dublin and a group of friends have gathered to play poker. When a stranger joins the game, the stakes rise mercilessly. A gorgeous, haunting and hilarious tale of redemption. Courtesy Photo

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We often speak of a movie or play as a "rollercoaster ride," but it's easy to forget that even the best rides begin with a slow, clanky climb up a hill. In the latter Harry Potter novels, Jo Rowling seemed to relish torturing readers with hundreds of actionless pages, the better to unleash hell toward the end.

Of course, if a writer constructs his or her story this way, then the payoff had better be worth the wait. In the case of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, boy, is it.

I knew almost nothing about the show when I walked in. "That's good," director Scot Whitney laughed, and like Whitney, I don't want to drop spoilers. Suffice it to say that as we get to know "Sharky" Harkin (Jason Haws) and his blind, irascible brother, Richard (David Wright), we become slowly convinced the play is going nowhere ... and we're wrong.

Listen, no one enjoys Irish alcoholics wailing abuse at each other more than I do, but as in McPherson's The Weir, the first 40 minutes are devoted to character development to the tune of boozy banter.

Now, here are two reasons why that's OK.

First, the banter's funny. Sure, it may not be Love List funny, but it's funny enough. It makes a memorable case, in fact, for comic overuse of the F-word. Second, the acting's terrific. I found accents dodgy here and there, but it never got in the way of naturalistic performance. No one does slow burn better than Jason Haws, and Wright gas already demonstrated his gift for portraying physical disability (in another Scot Whitney show, Unexpected Tenderness). But as good as Haws and Wright are, I think first-time Harlequin actor Daniel Guttenberg, as their drinking buddy Ivan, is even better. What an amazing, amusing, consistent piece of work Ivan is. I loved every minute of Guttenberg's performance, and he acts as the fulcrum between Haws' and Wright's more excitable characters.

We sense the play's about to take off when sly Mr. Lockhart and Nicky (Christian Doyle), Sharky's nemesis, arrive. We're correct. Mr. Lockhart and Sharky have a history, and it spins the second act into a twang of intensity we've craved all along.

Let me say this about Dennis Rolly's performance as Mr. Lockhart: Dennis and I are friends. We've acted together, and I value his talents so much that I cast him as Polonius and the Gravedigger in a version of Hamlet. But Rolly's work in Act II of this show surpasses even the finest work I've seen from him before. It's thisclose to being over the top and yet right where it should be. He's been itching to play Lear his whole career-and from where I sit, he's ready.

Arrive early; you'll need half an hour to read a witty glossary of Irish slang in the program. (Besides, they're serving Irish coffee in the lobby.) Allow this stellar cast the time it needs to tune your ears to the Dubliner dialect. Keep an eye on that candle Haws lights in Act I. Feel free to judge these characters harshly; they're brutish when drunk, and they're drunk all the time. You'll find it's part of Sharky's nature to choose the wrong battles. But by the end of this play, he'll be in the most important battle of his life, and only one other character in the room will know why.

The Seafarer

Through Feb. 18, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Harlequin Productions, 202 Fourth Ave., Olympia

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