St. Philip Neri, the 16th century's Apostle of Rome, said it for everybody when he declared, “If you want obedience, don't give commands.” That's Phil's way of saying you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—but the religious context makes more sense. Religion plays a big role in San Diego Repertory Theatre's current The Seafarer. In fact, so do flies. One of the characters says you can find God in a fly, to which the Prince of Darkness remarks on the critters' penchant for the taste of shit.
Satan, who visits four lifelong Dublin friends on Christmas Eve in an attempt to collect a debt in the form of a human life, has a lot to say about religion here, and he doesn't hold anything back. Neither do any of the friends. And that's the difficulty with what otherwise might be an interesting piece. Everybody's busy drinking and squabbling almost throughout, and when they're done, they drink and squabble some more, precluding their more subtle, intriguing natures. There's lots of exposition here, but precious little character development. And if we can't care about the characters, who demand our attention instead of coercing it, it's that much tougher to care about the show.
James “Sharky” Harkin (Ron Choularton) has the most to lose in an impending game of five-card stud. His secrets include a dubious spring from jail following a murder, and Mr. Lockhart (the Devil in human form, played by Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse) is here to seek recompense for his role in Sharky's release. I won't tell you how the contest turns out, except to say you'll recognize it for the anachronistic gimmick it is.
Meanwhile, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has the principals in a shout-fest of biblical proportions under Eric Lotze's judicious lighting design, over everything from a faulty toilet to Ivan Curry's (Paul James Kruse) lost glasses. The latter image, along with the blindness of Richard Harkin (TV veteran Armin Shimerman), is a fair one amid Christ's power to cure the sightless, but it's blunted by Lockhart's ramblings about the Crucifixion. He can preen all he wants about Jesus' weakness on the Cross, but the Crucifixion has nothing to do with Christmas—it's an Easter phenomenon, and Lockhart's reference to it erodes his and playwright Conor McPherson's cred.
I'm gonna suggest that Woodhouse hasn't taken any stage but three times since and including 2003 (he was in The Rep's Proof and King Lear before this). He's clearly not drawing from the muscle memory that seasoned acting and its subtleties require; every little thing's a big, huge deal to Lockhart, with a big, huge, foghorn voice or facial contortion oversimplifying his responses. When's the last time Scratch bellowed “I want your soul!” to clue you he's pissed at your sorry butt?
The answer, of course, is he never has. He doesn't need to. Like his Counterpart, he's clever in his use of silence to get your attention. Accordingly, this show, from the frenetic character exposition to Satan's belligerence, could use a big fat dose of chill. It's one thing to hit us over the head with suspense, but a rubber mallet is hardly appropriate when a bag of feathers will do.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Nov. 20. The Seafarer runs through Dec. 13 at The Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza Downtown. $34-$47. www.sdrep.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.