By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Feb 18, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Playwright Conor McPherson is the brain surgeon of contemporary drama. With a precise, sensitive and feathery touch, he accesses the nerve center of what it often means to be human.

The dull, unrelenting pain of emotional isolation, corrosive loneliness, thwarted communication and fumbled connections is gracefully and elegantly expressed in his work. Bittersweet is his favorite flavor. Shading and nuance are frequently used implements in his toolbox.

McPherson's 1997 hit "The Weir," the work that put him on the map in this country, may be the most beautifully written play of the past 20 years.

But McPherson is from Ireland, and that apparently means he has artistic baggage. Most of it is good. His scripts shimmer with the Irish gift for language and that land's poetic point of view.

However, alcohol is a player in some of those texts. "The Weir" is set in a remote rural pub. In "Dublin Carol," another of his gems, booze is a supporting character.

With "The Seafarer," the firewater has taken control, just as it does in lives, and its dominance of the piece is not a good thing. The Milwaukee Rep opened a superbly acted and staged production of the comedy last weekend.

"The Seafarer's" story is based on Celtic folklore. The devil drops in on a debauched all-male poker game to do some gambling.

In McPherson's updating, a smoothly confident Beelzebub has traded his pitchfork for a slick suit. He sticks out like a sore thumb at a table populated by a motley collection of misfits and slobs. The Prince of Darkness has come to win the soul of one of the game's participants.

All of the action occurs in the seedy living room of a house in suburban Dublin. Scattered trash is a visual metaphor for the fragmented, undisciplined lives of the two brothers who reside there and their pals who come by for some conversation and "a drop."

These are grown men well beyond the years of sowing wild oats but they are living like grungy frat boys whose biggest concern is that the beer doesn't run out. In this case, it is beer and the harder stuff.

The level of their irresponsibility is emphasized by the date of this card game. It is Christmas Eve, and two of the players have families at home. But on the holiest night in the Christian world, these husbands are drinking and gambling in the flickering light of a scrawny little Christmas tree.

It is certainly a vivid picture, but it is hardly new or revealing of any trenchant truths. We are just getting another look at a sad and seamy Irish stereotype of adults controlled by the bottle.

McPherson does not offer us enough depth and insight to know if these are truly tortured psyches or simply easily-tempted weak men. Unlike his other widely-produced work, these characters are undeveloped.

The result is a boozy comedy that is often quite amusing and also disturbing for the wrong reason. Our culture has moved beyond considering drunkenness and its accompanying renegade behavior as a legitimate form of entertainment. I felt uneasy laughing at the comical shenanigans on the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage.

That said, the play's broad characters are red meat for a cast of seasoned local actors. Without coloring outside of the lines, they present focused and flamboyant portraits of this rogues' gallery.

James Pickering has never been more outrageous or funnier than he is here, playing the blind older Harkin brother who is the primary resident of the house. He bellows, wheedles and mocks with a hearty gusto. But the Rep veteran also exposes a cruelly manipulative side of the codger.

Disheveled drinking buddy Ivan is the equivalent of a fat pitch in the middle of the plate for Christopher Tarjan, who hits this one out of the ball park. Ivan is in such a perpetual alcoholic haze, he has no idea where he left his car and eye glasses. The likable Tarjan adds a welcome sweet presence to the bitter tableau.

Looking like some sort of comic Gaelic hipster, Jonathan Gillard Daly plays against his usual type as Nicky, the family man spending Christmas Eve at a card game. Jonathan Smoots offers an appropriately sharp contrast as the sartorially resplendent devil in disguise, Mr. Lockhart.

Lee Ernst's Sharky, the younger Harkin brother, is "The Seafarer" and the exception in the play. On this night, at least, he is neither drunk nor funny. He is a restless loser -- but maybe not.

Ernst effectively conveys Sharky's fractured and frustrated quest for something. Blame playwright McPherson for not giving the actor and us any more information.

"The Seafarer" was mounted on a proscenium stage when it was produced on Broadway two years ago. Director Ben Barnes' decision to push the set forward on the Quadracci Powerhouse thrust stage serves the play well, taking it closer and making it more accessible to the audience. "The Seafarer" runs through March 7.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.