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.)