Written by Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes
Performances through December 23, 2018
Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman (photo: Joan Marcus)
As his last foray on Broadway, the bloated Jerusalem, can attest, no one would ever accuse Jez Butterworth of subtlety. So it’s not surprising that his new play The Ferryman is permeated by death, from the on-the-nose title to the risibly implausible bit of violence that climaxes its equally overlong three-plus hours.
Set in late August, 1981, on the Carney farm in Northern Ireland on Harvest Day, The Ferryman traffics in nefarious IRA doings. The Carney family has been deeply affected by the disappearance Seamus—younger brother of Quinn, head of the household—years before, and now that his pickled body has been discovered in a bog, the questions arise: Why was he killed, and by whom? Seamus’ widow Cait lives in the sprawling Carney farmhouse with her teenage son, cooking and doing chores for Quinn, his frail wife Mary and their children: four girls and three boys (including a nine-month-old infant). Since Mary spends so much of her time indisposed, naturally a spark has arisen between sister- and brother-in-law.
Also on hand are two elderly aunts: Patricia, who buzzes around getting angry at the radio over Margaret Thatcher insulting the Irish; and Aunt Maggie Far Away, an invalid whose lucid moments are few and far between. Patricia’s husband, Uncle Patrick (they’re both Pat, get it?), who explains the play’s title in a superfluous scene, rounds out the family.
Despite its trappings and author’s undeniably clever way with profane dialogue, The Ferryman is dramatically flimsy, so Butterworth relies heavily on obvious foreshadowing, heavy-handed symbolism and even the real sufferings of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands, who deserve better than to be dragged in to give weight to these entertaining but superficial goings-on.
The Ferryman reaches its nadir at the opening of the third act, when the Carney boys and their cousins discuss their own IRA memories (with the youngest improbably spitting out the most cutting quips), stopping the play dead in its tracks. It never really recovers: the climactic bloodletting and Aunt Maggie Far Away’s final ominous words (“They’re here!”) are more a dramatic shortcut than a genuinely satisfying ending.
Certainly the staging can’t be faulted. Director Sam Mendes paces The Ferryman so skillfully that there’s always an air of suspense hanging over the proceedings. Mendes makes Butterworth’s choppy writing seem seamless; there’s enough authentically casual interplay among the cast of 21 to make them a believably large family, something Butterworth only nods toward in his sprawling, ramshackle script. Mendes even makes assets of audience-baiting ploys: having an actual infant (four are in rotation) portray the Carney’s nine-month-old son and bringing a live goose and rabbit onstage oohs and aahs.
The flawless acting is an even greater asset. All of the youngsters—including the infant!—are at home in this household, with dialogue has salty as their elders’ (it’s the old Bad News Bears trope that adorable kids swearing make spectators swoon). Stuart Graham as malevolent IRA man Muldoon and Justin Edwards as simpleton Tom Kettle breathe coruscating life into stock characters: the scene between Tom and Cait (a heartbreaking Laura Donnelly), as he bumblingly and touchingly proposes, is the most effective in the entire play.
Vets Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie), Mark Lambert (Uncle Pat) and Dearbhla Molloy (Aunt Pat) give Butterworth’s words the perfect zesty snap. And, front and center, Paddy Considine is, amazingly, making his Broadway debut as Quinn, a decent but conflicted man juggling being a father, husband, brother-in-law, son, farmer, IRA sympathizer and survivor. Considine brings racy charm, abundant humor and seriously tragic dimensions to Quinn, something Butterworth doesn’t achieve on his own.
Even if The Ferryman isn’t a great play, watching this sparkling ensemble, estimably directed by Mendes, perform on Rob Howell’s extraordinary set (but what’s up with all those stairs?) is a richly theatrical experience.
Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY