Dealing with Devils

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

As anyone who's spent any time appreciating books, plays or movies can tell you, it's rarely a good idea to make a deal with the devil. The Faustian pact is generally a losing proposition, which is one of the things that makes Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, a shambling, whiskey-soaked Christmas Card to Goethe so hard to resist.

This devilish 2006 work, now running at the Geffen Playhouse, plays like a greatest hits album of McPherson's themes and tropes: ghost stories, barroom legends, demonic souls lurking in ordinary bodies, and of course, the power of the pint. In The Seafarer, the playwright serves up Miller and Harp, but the main spirits are Powers Gold Label and some locally distilled poteen, which the main character uses to fortify himself for his duel with the devil.

After watching The Seafarer on Broadway last year, I'd say it wasn't McPherson's finest ale, but it was poured with such skill and love that it went down smoothly. McPherson directed the production himself, which included some of the original cast members who created the roles in London. The coup of that Broadway version was the addition of Ciarán Hinds in the role of Mr. Lockhart (otherwise known as the Prince of Darkness). Hinds is a tall, dark Belfast bloke who looks like Albert Finney's much tougher, younger brother. He's best known here in the states for playing Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome.

Hinds had so much sinister presence that he provided a backbone to McPherson's lackadaisical plot. Here at the Geffen, Lockhart is played by Tom Irwin, a solid actor who is woefully miscast. Instead of dominating the stage (especially when not speaking) Irwin fades away, looking like a middle manager sitting in on a staff meeting. Irwin has robust stage voice, but its not enough—without a menacing devil, the play becomes merely an amusing gabfest.

This wouldn't be so bad if the gab had a particular Gaelic lilt to it; but the American actors' accents all wobble throughout. John Mahoney, who clearly is fan of McPherson's work (as is castmate Paul Vincent O'Connor and director Randall Arney — the three all collaborated together on the Geffen's production of the playwright's The Weir eight seasons ago) but Mahoney lacks the connection to language that made Jim Norton's performance in the same part so memorable. Credit them all for continuing to champion a fine playwright; but as the devil might warn, good intentions don't always lead to the best results.

boobs.jpg Mephistopheles also plays a key role in Dario Fo's 1997 farce Le Diavolo con le Zinne. The title of that play has been translated politely by the Open Fist Theatre Company (and Jon Laskin) as The Devil with Boobs. Luckily the play has been staged with complete irreverence, which is just as the Nobel winning playwright would want.

Around 10 years ago, Open Fist was one of the first LA theaters to stage a Dario Fo play after his Nobel Prize for Literature was announced. Their production of We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay was welcome, but it felt like a sketch instead of a full painting — there was too much hesitancy to it. This time around, Open Fist shows no restraint. The ensemble gleefully mugs, sings, strips, dances and acts like bona fide clowns.

The Devil with Boobs is a ribald comedy about servants and masters — with Satan thrown in to the mix to raise hell. The plot is more less irrelevant, it's set in medieval times, involving the devil wanting to inhabit the body of a judge, but who mistakenly enters the body of his busty maid. All of this is just an excuse for Fo to aim satirical darts at his favorite targets: the church and the ruling class.

Not for the squeamish, this production makes it raucously clear why Fo's comedy is so essential — and why it's so heavenly to see it performed right.

Dario Fo's The Devil Has Boobs runs at the Open Fist Theater through May 16; Conor McPherson's The Seafarer runs through May 24 at the Geffen Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: John Mahoney, Paul Vincent O’Connor, Andrew Connolly, Matt Roth and Tom Irwin The Seafarer. Photo: Michael Lamont