‘The Ferryman’: Broadway’s Wannabe Masterpiece

No need for me to add to the ecstatic praise (“thrilling,” “a masterpiece,” “best play of the century”) that has poured in from nearly every critic for The Ferryman, the Jez Butterworth play that has just opened on Broadway after a much-lauded, award-laden run in London. I can understand some of the enthusiasm. The play has the sort of heft and ambition that is all too rare in New York theater these days: three and a quarter hours long, nearly two dozen characters, a mix of political drama and family soap opera, with interludes of Irish folk songs and step-dancing, and a live goose onstage.  (The last inserted, I half-suspect, just so critics like me will mention it.)  But I had problems with the play. The Ferryman has all the trappings of greatness, without actually being great. 

We’re in the bustling household of Quinn Carney, a farmer in rural northern Ireland in 1981, in the midst of the “troubles.”  It’s harvest day, a traditional celebration for the locals, and Quinn has just learned that the body of his missing brother, Seamus, has been found in a bog — apparently murdered 10 years earlier by the Irish Republican Army for being a suspected informant. The news complicates the already complicated relationship between Quinn and Seamus’s wife, Caitlin, who moved in with the family after her husband’s disappearance. And it sparks a tense confrontation with a local IRA bigwig, who warns the family not to publicly blame the group for his death.

The first act (of three) labors through a lot of exposition, as each member of the family — seven children, a sickly mother, assorted aunts, nephews and uncles — is introduced, usually with a helpful, character-identifying greeting (“Morning, Aunt Cait; morning, Aunt Maggie; morning, Pat”).  If one more kid trooped down those stairs  I was ready to report the theater for fire-code violations. More seriously, the hearty bustle of this very Irish clan — the drinking, the storytelling, the political arguments, the folksy good cheer tinged by melancholy — has a distinctly potted, second-hand feel. The fact that Butterworth (Jerusalem, Mojo) is English should not disqualify him from writing an Irish play. But even Martin McDonagh, another Londoner who has set many of his fine plays on the Emerald Isle, seems to capture the milieu with more authenticity — and less sentimentality.  

The literary allusions and mythic conceits, too, seem a little tired and overdone. There’s not one but two feeble-minded characters who function as seers or dispensers of folk wisdom. One is a hulking, slow-witted English farmhand, who pulls rabbits out of his coat and collects rainbows. The other is a silent, wheelchair-bound aunt lost in dementia, who recovers her senses and voice just long enough to provide spurts of revelatory backstory. As for the uncle who quotes The Aeneid in between swigs of Bushmill’s— well, somebody has to explain the play’s title. 

I found the political melodrama more effective than the family scenes,  and the violent (and somewhat surprising) ending provides a powerful closing kick.  But even here, Butterworth’s plot contrivances strain credulity at several points — particularly the supposed betrayal of the family priest, and an offstage act of violence stolen from Of Mice and Men.  Director Sam Mendes does his usual fine job in managing the stage clutter, and the cast (especially Paddy Considine as Quinn and Laura Donnelly as Caitlin) is uniformly first-rate. I was never bored. But is The Ferryman a masterpiece? Not by a long shot.  

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4 thoughts on “‘The Ferryman’: Broadway’s Wannabe Masterpiece”

  1. Interesting! But why “even Martin McDonagh…”? Troy Segal 137 E. 36th St. Apt. 8A New York, NY 10016 212-684-7233/917-886-0270 (c)

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    1. Because McDonagh isn’t a “real” Irish playwrights (like, say, Conor McPherson or Brian Friel).
      But I didn’t really dislike the play. I just resented the overpraise.

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