One of three plays by John Patrick Shanley — two of them new works — opening Off Broadway this month, “Sailor’s Song” is an inconsequential sliver of seaside whimsy in which the playwright’s dual personalities of scrappy Bronx poet and incurable romantic seem an especially ponderous marriage. “If you could take life by the wrist and dance, I think it would be a waltz,” says the protagonist of this reflection on choices in love. But while punctuated by Gene Kelly-styled dance interludes, Shanley’s overwrought dialogue and director Chris McGarry’s bloodless staging give this LAByrinth production two left feet.
Set in an imagined harbor town, the play centers on two men struggling to connect across the divide between cynicism and romantic idealism, between realism and head-in-the-clouds fantasy. Having given up trying to nurture a relationship with his born-again father, Rich (Danny Mastrogiorgio) is staying with his boozing, womanizing uncle John (Stephen Payne), a fellow commercial seaman, to help the latter through the impending death of his wife, Carla, from cancer.
When Rich meets two comely sisters in a local bar, he is unable to decide between pursuing straight-up, available bank employee Lucy (Melissa Paladino) or emotionally elusive psychic Joan (Katie Nehra). The dilemma underlines the gap between the thinking of the nephew and his uncle, who’s unable to shed tears for the wife he loves.
“For every man, there are two women,” offers John. “There’s the woman you’re with, and there’s the woman you could be with.” But John advocates making a concrete choice between the two before they both slip through Rich’s fingers, while his nephew has difficulty not only knowing what he wants but also knowing who he is.
Mastrogiorgio and, especially, Payne lace the scenes between Rich and John with raw vulnerability. Products of Shanley’s fanciful imagination, both men seem impossibly articulate for sailors. The uncle is like a Hemingway character channeling Henry James, firing off indigestibly florid lines like “Is your life just a hurricane and everything behind you wrecked real estate?” or “The pattern book of life contains many designs.”
But with his weathered features and easy, alcohol-oiled body language, Payne’s lived-in performance dignifies and authenticates an artificial character, making the moment when John finally locates his grief one of the play’s few genuine emotional elevations.
Lucy and Joan are described variously as mermaids or angels and seem no more tangible than that would imply, a weakness aggravated by poor casting choices in Paladino and Katie, neither of whom is exactly brimming with charisma.
Confined by the limited space of the Public’s Shiva Theater stage, the twee dance numbers, choreographed by Barry McNabb, feel like awkwardly imposed flights of fancy rather than integral extensions of Shanley’s exploration of romance. These range from John and Lucy twirling while Sergio Franchi croons “Man Without Love” in English and Italian to Carla (Alexis Croucher) segueing from death throes to a pained, sexual dance set to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” The convulsive flailing in the latter is unlikely to keep Twyla Tharp awake nights.
A LAByrinth actor whose inexperience as director is all too apparent, McGarry might have been wise to take a tip from Gene Kelly and grace this fragile piece with some much-needed muscularity.
However, Camille Connolly’s set conveys hints of a porch, a wharf and a barroom with neat economy, while the soft blues of Beverly Emmons’ lighting hit the right romantic fairy-tale note.