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Devil Take the Hinds In "The Seafarer," Irish actor CiarĂ¡n Hinds plays a very human Devil--which somehow makes him all more chilling.
Did we hear right? It sounds like the Devil just invoked a Christian sacrament.

"It's like everyone having Communion at the same time," says Ciarán Hinds, who plays the red-tied gentleman with an underworld address in the Broadway run of The Seafarer, which closes on Mar. 30. "There are moments where you're aware of a really deep, deep silence in the audience. You can hardly hear a breath.

"And at the end of the play, during the final card game, everyone's waiting for what's going to happen--you can feel that emanating from the stalls."

That last word, for what we Yanks call the orchestra, pegs Hinds as a Brit. Indeed, this tall, striking actor has worked everywhere from Dublin's Gate to the Royal Shakespeare Company, though American audiences are most likely to know him from his roles as Caesar in the HBO series Rome, as the bespectacled bomb expert in Munich or as the strapping Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

The experience of touching a live theatre audience reminds Hinds of another director with whom he worked, on the seminal epic-theatre staging of The Mahabharata.

"It's like what Peter Brook talks about The Empty Space--this recognition that we're all there together in that moment," Hinds says.

What he continues to marvel at, as Seafarer's five-month run nears its end, is the way playwright/director Conor McPherson has structured the play for maximum effect.

"I have no idea how these ideas came into his head," Hinds says. "I see people after the show, and they're sort of flushed with excitement--they've been on a rocky ride, kind of a roller coaster. There's humor and warmth, and then it goes to a very dark, dark place. It's a balancing act to bring people on the ride along with you rather than inflict the play on them. I never cease to marvel at how Conor constructed it."

The play revolves around a heavy-drinking, poker-playing colloquy of men around Christmastime in Dublin. A stranger named Mr. Lockhart, played by Hinds, enters the inn, and the game, with a special focus on one tortured soul, that of a fellow named Sharky, played by David Morse. It soon becomes clear that Lockhart is an alias--a guise for none other than Old Scratch himself--and that he plans to leave with more than the kitty.

McPherson has invoked the supernatural in many previous plays: The Weir, Shining City, St. Nicholas. Has Hinds, a native of Belfast, ever had a firsthand experience with the non-alcoholic sort of spirit?

"No, but it's somewhere in our national psyche," Hinds says, speaking for his countrymen. "When I was younger, I was involved with an Irish dance group, and we used to tell the old myths and legends of Ireland through dancing--stories about giants of men, and magic Druids weaving spells. It's not like what you see at sporting events now, with people dressed as leprechauns."

In the case of Lockhart, Hinds says, "It's about the possibility of a human having something else inside him, so it's more about the psychology."

Which raises an interesting question: What would be the psychology of the Devil?

"He's lonely and embittered," Hinds says. "He gets tiny tastes of the warmth of humanity, but he's always an outsider, always just on the edge. When his real mission is revealed, which is to take the soul, all his bile and complexity come out. He's so far gone that I think he feels, I might as well get some humor out of it. But though he may laugh, it's hollow."

That squares with McPherson's conception of both the Devil and what he represents.

"You usually think of the Devil as hot, fiery," Hinds says. Instead, in a description that could serve as a working definition of Hell even the secular among us could agree with, "Conor pictures him as this frigid, dead black hole, just full of complete loneliness and emptiness forever."

The Seafarer is only Hinds' second Broadway appearance. His first was in 1999's acclaimed production of Patrick Marber's Closer. He counts himself lucky to have had such great work come his way.

"I've been very fortunate to work with the people I've worked with," Hinds says. "You can't legislate for that. It's all timing, chance and a bit of backup."

Or maybe it's just that the Devil always gets his due.

Click here for more information about The Seafarer.