PORTLAND – Imagine spending a couple of hours with a handful of smelly, foul-mouthed and drunk Irishmen and not being grossed out, but rather engrossed by their antics and tales.

Of course, the smelly part is only talked about. But the real reason “The Seafarer,” the latest offering from the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, is so successful is because good actors have been matched up with an exceptional play.

Irish playwright Conor McPherson, known as a kinder and gentler, though no less talented, alternative to Martin McDonough, has managed to convey the humanity in men whose camaraderie is closely tied to the proximity of the next “drop” of booze they might share.

The play takes place in a basement room on the outskirts of Dublin, where two unmarried brothers, one blind and the other trying to get sober, live out the wee hours of Christmas Eve. If not for the presence of some cell phones, CDs and euros, the time of the 2006 play could be anytime in the last century or so. Not about history (other than personal history) or politics, the play focuses on the characters’ attempts to get through their lives with some semblance of dignity and hopefulness.

Tony Reilly, as the blind brother Richard, is absolutely first-rate — blustering and blubbering with equal force. Funny and sad, as is the play as a whole, Richard seeks to secure the caretaking services of his possibly mentally ill brother Sharky through combinations of guilt trips and derision.

Craig Ela’s Sharky broods quietly as he tries to fend off the more obvious manipulations of his older brother. Ela’s very low-key presence at Friday’s performance contrasted nicely with the often bellowing Reilly.

The brief episodes of physical violence in the play are all the more real for coming from men more adept at drowning their emotions in drink and self-serving (and often subtly lyrical) conversation.

Mark Honan, with perhaps the most genuine accent in the ensemble, was a comic delight as the family friend Ivan. A character with his own set of drink-related problems, Honan’s Ivan, like Sharky, gets reminded of an unpleasant past event when friend Nicky (Corey Gagne) joins the group, along with a newfound acquaintance, Mr. Lockhart (Paul Haley).

The group engages in a poker game that takes up a good part of the second act. Blessings and curses of both the common and the cosmic variety ensue.

In the end, all is not lost, though Sharky’s sobriety and, one would guess, most of the characters’ livers remain at risk.

Director Daniel Burson, cast and crew have put together a very entertaining and oddly uplifting production about men who ride the troubled seas of incomplete lives.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.