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And now for something (almost completely) different: for decades, the San Diego Rep staged A Christmas Carol during the holiday season. On the surface, this year’s yuletide production, The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, couldn’t be more different. It takes place today, on Baldoyle, a coastal suburb of North Dublin reputed as a site of myths and legends. There are no Bob Cratchits or Tiny Tims, but when visitors arrive to play cards on Christmas Eve — with memories of the past and news about a possible future — one of them really means business.

On Christmas Eve morning, all through the Harkin house, the denizens behave as if last night was New Year’s Eve; either that, or the living room’s a recycling center for used beer bottles. Ivan Curry, a friend, is so hung over he can’t stand the sight of food — or couldn’t, that is, if he could find his glasses. Richard Harkin’s been blind since Halloween (trying to retrieve rolls of wallpaper from a Dumpster, he dove in and banged his head). Nonetheless, Richard wants to lead a charge against the winos spewing urine and vomit on the steps of their home.

Apparently there are degrees of indelicacy at Baldoyle. Richard decries the winos but doesn’t think twice about ralphing up a goodly gob of phlegm and rubbing it into a frayed armrest.

Along with having to pay his brother constant attention, James “Sharkey” Harkin has all manner of woes. He decided to quit drinking two days before Christmas, which, given the epic way family and friends imbibe even on non-holidays, resembles trying to quit smoking in a cigarette factory.

If North Dublin staged A Christmas Carol, Sharkey’s become such a “curmudgeonly old bollocks” he could audition for Scrooge. And during the Powers whiskey and Harp lager-swilled Christmas Eve to come, two unwanted visitors — along with Ivan, who may have to stay awhile, since his wife kicked him out and he still can’t find his glasses — arrive: volatile Nicky and his stately friend Lockhart. The latter dresses like a CEO and acts like royalty. And might be: the Prince of Darkness, that is.

Dr. Faustus sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of power and frolic. Twenty-five years ago, Sharkey may have made a similar, though much lower-level, deal during a card game. Not that his life since has rendered unto him earthly glory (or Helen of Troy on a tiger-skin rug). It’s been the same since birth, one tromping after another. “Don’t mind Sharky’s bad humor,” brother Richard tells Mr. Lockhart. “He came out backwards, and his head has been arseways ever since.”

If Mr. Lockhart is who we think he is, Sharkey sounds like a viable candidate for the lower depths. Except for a Christmas present from a friend, and a persistent ability to keep trying, he’s made “a pig’s mickey out of everything” he touches, including a scuffle that may have turned lethal.

In today’s tight economic times, the Inferno Dante describes — eternal fires, demons tormenting the damned 24/7 — sounds awfully high maintenance (I mean, heating bills alone must run in the zillions!). So does Sartre’s hotel rooms in No Exit (cleaning bills, ditto) and the almost eternal damnation in Stanley Elkin’s brilliant Living End.

The Hell Mr. Lockhart describes sits at the bottom of Dante’s Ninth Circle, Cocytus, the frozen lake. It’s cheap, efficient, and far more isolated than the others. But surely Mr. Lockhart wouldn’t send Sharkey there! What could he possibly have done to deserve that?

The San Diego Rep won’t be able to run The Seafarer every Christmas season, and it’s too bad. The production, ably directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, is a grungy holiday hoot. Though the mystical effects are hokum (the overhead cloud-sheet and lightning on the walls look man-, not Satan-made), Robin Sanford Roberts’s detailed set captures an appropriately lived-in look, by resident simians. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s excellent costumes not only define character, they suggest the weather at the Harkins’ — baby, it’s cold inside.

Ron Choularton does a fine turn as poor Sharkey. Put upon, unable to drink his “brains out,” Sharkey is ever about to snap. Choularton sustains that difficult edge throughout. As blind Richard, Armin Shimerman’s a crotchety master of ceremonies, talking almost nonstop (with stopwatch-precise timing). From his first, hung-over entrance, to his final stroke(s) of luck, Paul James Kruse’s Ivan is funny, especially the more Ivan tries to be serious. Robert Townsend’s boastful Nicky wears a Versace jacket, drives Sharkey’s car, and lives with Sharkey’s ex-. You’d think he has it all, but Townsend intimates that, well, maybe not.

Sam Woodhouse, the Rep’s artistic director, hasn’t performed onstage in some time. It doesn’t show. Woodhouse gives Lockhart the right amounts of reserve and — when Eric Lotze’s lighting halos him in reds — fuming intensity.

How the cast handles the ending is particularly memorable: there may be a point beyond the point of no return.

The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Sam Woodhouse, Ron Choularton, Paul James Kruse, Armin Shimerman, Robert Townsend; scenic design, Robin Roberts; costume design, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through December 13; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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