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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
A Sailor's Song
A Watercolor

I've gone all over the world. . .but I didn't find a reason for me anywhere in the sense of my life. A break through cause. Something that puts me on the the other side, you know, with the people who knew why they're alive. Am I gonna wait for that to come to me? What if it doesn't come. Or maybe I don't know it when it shows up. Then I'm just another guy waiting to die.
--- Rich
Stephen Payne &  Alexia Croucher
(l-r) Stephen Payne, Alexia Croucher
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In a New York Times Magazine profile by Alex Witchell (11/07/04), John Patrick Shanley declares "playwriting is the last great bastion of the individual writer. It's exciting precisely because it's where the money isn't." That's why he decries seeing plays chosen as economically "safe" which he usually finds to be "boring retreads" or "denatured Arthur Miller." The article's publication was timed to alert New Yorkers to the fact that this isn't just empty talk, but that Shanley, though probably best known for the Oscar-winning Moonstruck, is indeed practicing what he considers a writer's greatest calling and that three prestigious companies have mounted three plays (two brand new, and one a revival) by a man who has much to say and a gift for saying it through characters who embody the common man with the touch of the poet.

Sailor's Song, the first in this Shanley mini-festival gets the LAByrinth Theater Company's second season as a Public Theatre resident company off to an exemplary start. It's a somber play in that a woman's death overarches its separate but interconnected relationships. But it's also a winning fantasia with everyone periodically breaking into dance as the sky twinkles with stars.

Though any play or film which intermittently bursts into a musical mode is bound to bring Dennis Potter's Singing Detective to mind, not to worry. Mr. Shanley has not succumbed to derivativeness. Instead, he has charmingly married Eugene O'Neill's seaside dramas to Fred and Ginger style movie romances, and in doing so managed to reconcile his central character's confusion about real and idyllic relationships -- not to mention topping it off with a decidedly un-Strindberg like dance of death that has love triumphing even in the presence of the Grim Reaper.

It's all moving and often funny, with the dance sequences a stunning and inventive fit. As beautifully staged and sensitively directed by Chris McGarry who is, like the playwright, a member of LABrinth, the title tag is quite apt. Sailor's Song is a "watercolor" you'll want to hang in a prominent page of your theatrical memory book.

Despite the fictional South Atlantic coastal town setting, Shanley watchers will recognize Rich (Danny Mastrogiorgio) as a vintage Bronx guy. And it doesn't take long to realize that being at sea doesn't just describe Rich's occupation but his emotional state. You might call his feeling at sea a midlife crisis that's triggered by his having arrived in town to be with his Uncle John (Stephen Payne) whose wife Carla (Alexis Croucher) is dying. He wants to be there for his uncle and yet doesn't quite know how, just as he has difficulty deciding to which of two beautiful sisters he meets at a local bar he's really attracted -- Joan (Katie Nehra), a somewhat other-worldly, mysterious blonde or Lucy (Melissa Paladino), a more grounded (and grounding) brunette who works in a bank. While Lucy seems to offer a real chance to experience a loving relationship, Joan appeals to his yearning for something to put him on that "other side" that holds "the people who know why they're alive." The aunt's death further exacerbates this sense of wanting to make plans instead of just becoming "another guy waiting to die."

As the scene shifts from the waterfront leading Uncle John's home and back, so the dialogue of this rumination on life, love and death shifts between earthy, humor-spiced dialogue and lyrical interludes which are more the stuff common to philosophers than seamen. Thus when Rich introduces himself to Lucy with "Hey I'm Rich" she responds with "Good for you", leaving him to explain that it's his name. Uncle John finds Rich's receding hairline sufficient reason to urge him to " bang" both Joan and Lucy before they "get realistic" and in his more lyrical moments likens himself to being Rich's lighthouse. The uncle-nephew relationship is as fraught with nuances as the Rich-Lucy-Joan triangle.

Danny Mastrogiorgio's Rich is the very essence of an ordinary guy with extraordinary yearnings. Katie Nehra brings the right touch of fascinating extraordinariness to sister Joan, and Melissa Paladino captures the down-to-earth charm of sister Lucy. Stephen Payne, whose work at 29th Street Rep CurtainUp has admired, plays the u ncle faced with losing the woman who was his life's anchor with an electric mix of tough practicality and explosive emotion. Alexis Croucher, who plays that anchor, has the smallest part, but she bedazzles in her one painfully beautiful big scene.

Camille Connolly has succeeded remarkably well in turning the small Shiva Theater stage into a colorfull waterfront, at one point even accommodating a musical rowboat scene. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes, Beverly Emmons' lights and Elizabeth Rhodes' sound support the charm and intimacy of this world premiere.

I'm posting this review as I'm about to head to the Second Stage to see Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a 1984 two-hander, and look forward to seeing another new play, Doubt, next week. Watch these pages to see if November will add up to three Shanley home runs.

Sailor's Song -- A Watercolor
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Chris McGarry
Choreography by Barry McNabb
Cast: Alexis Croucher (Cala/Dance Captain), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Rich), Katie Nehra (Joan), Melissa Paladino (Lucy), Stephen Payne (John). Director, Chris McGarry
Set Design: Camille Connolly, costumes are by , lighting by and sound design is
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons
Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes
Running time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission
LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public Theatre/Shiva Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street, 212/239-6200
From 9/25/04 to 11/21/04; opening 11/07/04.
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Sun @ 2:00PM.
Tickets, $40
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 6th press performance
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