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Sailor's Song

By New York City
Katie Nehra, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Melissa Paladino inSailor's Song(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Katie Nehra, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Melissa Paladino in
Sailor's Song
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Paula Vogel, now being celebrated by the Signature Theatre Company, isn't the only contemporary playwright enjoying a three-play season in New York City. John Patrick Shanley is as well, even trumping Vogel with a trio of plays bowing within weeks of each other. Due very soon is the Second Stage revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and following on its heels will be MCC's production of Doubt. Just opened is the LAByrinth Theater Company staging of Shanley's Sailor's Song, a lovely play that's all the more unusual in that "lovely" isn't an adjective instantly associated with this dramatist's work.

On the other hand, Shanley has never stood still as a playwright. Although he deals repeatedly with the same themes, he always finds offbeat ways to present them. With Sailor's Song, described by him as "a watercolor," he's gone to the end of the pier -- figuratively and literally. Set at a waterside shack (designed by Camille Connolly) that could be the site of a Eugene O'Neill sea play, Sailor's Song tells the story of a landlocked commercial seaman named Rich (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a fellow who's longing to fall in love and primed to break into a dance at the first sign that he's met the woman of his dreams. That serendipitous development occurs when he's approached at a bar by sisters to whom he might easily give his bruised heart.

"If you could dance with the days of your life," Rich says affably when first addressing the audience, "if you could take life by the wrist and dance, I think it would be a waltz." Lo and behold, it's only seconds after making this lyrical statement that he encounters Joan (Katie Nehra), a psychic medium and automatic writer, and Lucy (Melissa Paladino), who toils more mundanely at a bank but seems the likelier mate for Rich. Discovering their shared attraction, Rich and the ladies begin stepping around to Johann Strauss strains. As choreographed by Barry McNabb, they delightfully display the lightness of being that Shanley's "watercolor" designation implies.

Trouble ensues with the arrival of John (Stephen Payne), Rich's uncle and a fellow commercial sailor whose wife, Carla (Alexis Croucher), is succumbing to cancer. John, a reprobate more devoted to his dying spouse than his philandering would suggest, is also intent on getting through to Rich. The men tangle over how best to express their feelings -- for women and for each other. Eventually, the deceased Carla rises to dance while Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" hints at the bond between her and John. The emotions that John experiences, as witnessed by Rich, overcome the philosophical differences between the men and bring them together. (The Redding performance that Shanley asks sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes to air is the moodily erotic version from the singer's Live in Europe album.)

Troubled young men with ambitions are a Shanley staple. Indeed, he announced the dreams-and-reality theme most succinctly with his evocative The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. The title of Moonstruck isn't a bad way to describe the plight, either, as Shanley did with his Oscar-winning screenplay. Growing up in the Bronx, Shanley evidently spent time around many maturing boys with dreams that they feared couldn't be realized, given the limitations of their surroundings; he undoubtedly once counted himself among these lost boys. In his writing, the street rogues are young men like Rich (and, for another handy example, Moonstruck's Ronny) who see themselves as nothing much but long to be something in someone's eyes. They're sincere fellows with romantic yearnings. Consequently, when Shanley imagines Rich breaking into dance as if the whole world is an Arthur Murray studio, he hits the kind of paydirt that wins over audiences and perhaps even obliterates memories of Dirty Story, his recent experimental satire. (FYI: Shanley is adapting Moonstruck as a musical.)

The cast of Sailor's Song(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The cast of Sailor's Song
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Rich isn't the only appealing character here. Both Lucy and Joan are intelligent, sensitive, and quirky young women. Lucy's hope of snaring Rich is as poignant as Rich's desire to be snared by either sweet-tempered sibling. The only time Shanley's invitation to the dance gets into some two-left-feet maneuvering is during the Rich-John contretemps; John occasionally waxes outré when expressing dismay at his nephew's flights of fancy and refusal to accept hard facts. To stage the play, LAByrinth has done what it often does and has tapped an actor to try his hand in another arena. Chris McGarry has gotten, yes, lovely performances from his players, perhaps partly due to the understanding that actors have when talking to each other about their work. Mastrogiorgio has the most to do here, and while there's much playfulness around his mouth as he chats with Joan, Lucy, and the audience, there's hurt in his eyes. In other words, he's an ideal Shanley interpreter. Payne, who usually performs with the 29th Street Repertory Company, has the cracked voice and craggy face of a Bowery habitué and is just right as the whiskey-soaked but deceptively clear-headed John. Paladino as the level-headed sister and Nehra as the spaced-out one are lithe and charming in Mimi O'Donnell's slinky costumes. And Croucher, who never speaks, make her dancing count. Thanks to all of them and to John Patrick Shanley, Sailor's Song is full of haunting music, both heard and unheard.

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