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Sean Mahon: Rising with the Bar

Following the succession of stirring plays imported by The National Theatre of Great Britain comes Olivier Award-nominated The Seafarer by author Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City).  It's Christmas Eve and five men find themselves at high-stakes and the mercy of myth, game-playing, brotherhood and the drink.  Among these fateful fellows is Nicky, portrayed by New York-based Irish actor, Sean Mahon.

The well-traveled Sean makes his Broadway debut in The Seafarer but holds theatre credits in the US and Europe, and is a founding member of Virtual Theatre Project.'s own News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, had the pleasant opportunity to phone-chat with Sean while he took a brief break – near the ice-skaters in Bryant Park – between rehearsals and a Friday evening performance.

Sean discusses the privilege he feels in working opposite such polished and talented leading men, the honor of shaping McPherson's poignant script, and his passion for going wherever his work takes him…

Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations on your Broadway debut. How does it feel?

Sean Mahon: Humbling and exciting at the same time. We began previews last Tuesday, rehearsals started four-weeks ago. It's certainly full-on and full-throttle. You don't get a chance to sit back and relax because this is the point where we're tweaking things to see what works and what doesn't work; so the level of concentration is very focused.  But who wouldn't be happy with this? It's a great opportunity and a really great piece of writing. I'm just really very fortunate. That's all I can say…

Eugene: Tell me a little bit about the writing… The Seafarer is being described as chilling with the arrival of a stranger and Heavy Drinking and the power of Irish myth… so what kind of emotional or mental-ride does Conor McPherson's script bring the audience on?

Sean: It's very much an exploration of the human condition and how different people react and respond to their lives. And what they present to the world, in terms of who they are as characters and what is going on behind the mask, in terms of what demons their holding… and how that interacts. It's very much a character-based play. Conor's writing is almost musical and paints pictures at the same time. It's a joy as an actor to be able to say the words. It's very conversational but at the same time, tells a story. It's a piece that is so interactive, and relies so much on these five men in the room, that I think will appeal to the life experiences every person has, in some small way. Every aspect of the play will in some way touch somebody or they'll know someone that has a likeness… very representative of real life.

Eugene: What about your character, Nicky Giblin? How does he fit into it all?

Sean: I don't want to give too much away… There are five characters in the play, and it revolves around two brothers, Richard and Sharky.  Nicky is one of Richard's friends that comes to play cards on Christmas Eve with them. Nicky is – I wouldn't say happy-go-lucky – but he certainly has a positive outlook on life, and tries his hand on many many many jobs and does is not very successful. And I wouldn't say he's not loved or respected by a lot of people, but he's certainly not a deep thinker. He's very reactive and moves very very fast. He presents a persona to the world that's very flash and in-control of situations, but underneath it all, he has his own set of problems concerning gambling and alcohol.

Eugene: It certainly sounds like you have a good handle on him so far.

Sean: I would hope. [laughs]

Eugene: You're sharing the stage with some mighty fine actors, including Olivier Award-winners Jim Norton and Conleth Hill. What's it like working opposite these four leading men?

Sean: Amazing.  It's like a Master Class in Acting for three hours. I go to work and I learn so much and do so much. I'm privileged. I'm privileged to be on stage with them. That's all I can say.  They're extremely generous. There are no egos in the room at all. It's a group of men – Conor included – everyone is so collaborative and cooperative, kind, considerate, very professional. And they know their craft. They know it very very well. There's no room for messing around. It's not messy at all. When I go in at this level, when I get the opportunity to play and work at this level, it's at the top of the game. I think, in life, we rise to whatever the bar is.  I've been fortunate to rise with them.

Eugene: What a great opportunity! How did you get involved with this project and The National Theatre?

Sean: Actually, I was contacted by my New York agent. I was in Los Angeles at the time. She said: "This is happening. Would I fly out and audition?" I went through the natural process that most actors go through. I brought myself out here, had an audition on a Wednesday; then had a call-back on Thursday, had a call-back on Friday and I had it by Friday afternoon.

Eugene: Wow!

Sean: And I was moving to New York in two weeks. It all happened that fast.

Eugene: Your theatre experience lies all over America and Ireland, so what does it mean to be a New York-based Irish actor? Where do you call home?

Sean: I guess home is where the heart is, as they say. I've moved around the stage a lot – but I had intended on moving to New York anyway so I could live closer to Ireland and to Europe. That's where my sensibility is. This has just facilitated that process.  New York feels like a sublet of Europe. And Europe is a sublet of New York. Put it that way. It's so accessible. When I was in LA, I felt so far away from my home. Home, for the moment, is here until it's not. I like to move around with my work. I feel it's a great way to learn about life, about new cultures, and to learn. We'll see where the wind takes me.

Eugene: How do you decide what to perform where?

Sean: Honestly, I'd love to think I was in a position where I had that decision. But last year I worked on a movie in Bulgaria, now I'm in New York or LA. It really sounds jet-setting when you say it, but there's lots of down-time where you wonder what you're doing or you wonder about life. For me, it's about having a full life wherever I come to set my hat for a while; so I like to be in a place that offers me a base that's rich and full of people.  New York certainly has that at the moment.

Eugene: That's fantastic. Back to The Seafarer and where it fits into this season… This year on Broadway, we've only got about five musicals. All the other houses are filled with new or revived plays, which makes it very healthy! Why do you think it's important for New York theatre audiences and tourists to go experience a straight play?

Sean: I don't want to denounce musicals because they certainly have a message they want to communicate. But with straight plays, there is a focus on what's going on between people and relationships. I think so much is happening in the world at the moment, so many changes politically and culturally, writers are writing about that. People want to relate to that. That's a healthy place to be. Even movies do this: War movies or light-hearted comedies, they all have their different time. And this is the time, fortunately, for straight plays... Are you going to come see it?

Eugene: Oh, of course! I'm a huge play fan.  It certainly sounds like you're working very hard and in a wonderful position, surrounded by terrific actors. Break a leg with The Seafarer opening very soon, and thanks so much for talking to BroadwayWorld.

Sean: Thank you very much. Bye.

Currently in previews, The National Theatre of Great Britain's critically acclaimed production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer opens Thursday, November 15 at the Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street). The production, directed by McPherson, stars Conleth Hill, Ciarán Hinds, Sean Mahon, David Morse, and Jim Norton.  Ticket ($98.50 - $76.50) are available at Telecharge 212-239-6200 or

Photos by Joan Marcus: Sean Mahon; Sean Mahon and David Morse in The Seafarer

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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)