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Damned Drunk 

Southern Rep's crackerjack production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer tells the saga of four hardy voyagers all several sheets to the wind celebrating Christmas by playing poker together on the outskirts of Dublin. The sea these sailors struggle to navigate is 90 proof, and a mind-numbing fog rises from that alcoholic deep. Impossible as it may sound, the story suffers no clichés and there's even a surprise revelation of metaphysical proportions.

Director Mark Routhier assembled and guides a sensational cast. The play garnered an Olivier Best Play nomination for its 2006 London premiere, but you get the feeling a less skillful staging could fall flat.

The play begins in the home of James 'Sharky" Harkin (Drew Battles) and his older brother Richard (Mark McLaughlin), who is temporarily blinded from a fall (a tipsy tumble, we take it) into a Dumpster. Friend Ivan Curry (John Bostic) is there as well but has few memories of what happened. Memory and even reality suffer a Beckett-like slippage in the sodden chaos, as a typical exchange reveals:

'I was talking to you last night."

'Was you there last night?"

Generally, these characters try to piece together a coherent reality, but they drop even that foredoomed effort for a laugh.

'You know what I want?" says one. 'Irish coffee."

'We don't have coffee."

'Then I'll just take the Irish."

Everything inevitably leads back to the Holy Grail of their pilgrimage: a few more pints. The celebration of Christ's birth is reduced to a diminutive, decorated, synthetic tree on a side table and endless excuses for imbibing.

The dialogue is snappy without lapsing into a slew of lowbrow drunk jokes. At one point, an extended discourse between the trio " a 'trialogue" " is reminiscent of an opera, but it works just fine spoken instead of sung. Of course, the Irish dialect and curse words ('bollocks" for instance) add to the pleasure. The actors deal with the accent comfortably.

Sharky is having a fling with his boss' wife. He is trying to dry out and cure his alcoholism amid these pals, both of whom are votaries of Dionysius.

Nicky (Shad Willingham) and Mr. Lockhart (Jim Fitzmorris) enter. Casual apparel is the rule with this crowd. The most casual is Ivan, with his beard and slovenly clothes. He looks like a dancing bear escaped from a Moscow circus. Mr. Lockhart bears not only a more formal appellation, but more formal dress as well " a dark, three-piece suit.

He is forbidding. A boss? A politician? When he's alone with Sharky, we learn he's actually Mephistopheles. He's come to claim the errant mortal's soul. Lockhart let Sharky escape from a guilty past once before, but Sharky promised he would play cards with the Devil again sometime in the future. Lockhart plans to win and take the sinner to an eternal punishment of indescribable horror. The story slips from verisimilitude into Christian myth. The ante of McPherson's drunken comedy is upped dramatically. The laughter continues, but with an added aura of suspense.

The Seafarer is also the name of an eighth-century Old English poem about a sailor and his struggles on the ocean. The poem may also be taken as an allegory of the soul's journey.

The acting in The Seafarer almost outweighs the script. The cast is balanced and no one steals the show, but special recognition goes to Mark McLaughlin, who was one of New Orleans' premier thespians for many years. It's a pleasure to see him in the limelight again. Jim Fitzmorris, who long since established himself as a talented playwright, proves a damnably good Devil. He shrugged off my compliments after the opening night performance with the sardonic explanation: 'Type-casting."

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