While it’s billed as a dramedy, the laughter is in short supply in Jack Canfora’s “Poetic License,” world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company. Despite some tidy acting and several layers of late-coming revelations, the play fails to ignite as its central literary mystery deepens.
As members of the press converge upon the home of America’s newly appointed poet laureate, John Greer (John Little), a literature professor at a hallowed university, finds himself facing an unexpected crisis that threatens to destroy his esteemed reputation and career. Was he, in fact, the real author of the acclaimed poems for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and found literary fame?
The prof’s 19-year-old daughter Katherine (Anna O’Donoghue) returns home from college with her live-in beau and fledgling poet, Edmund (Douglas Scott Sorenson), and is reunited with her boozy mother Diane (Nancy Ringham).
Despite all the accustomed pleasantries, blather and banter about the celebrated professor’s accomplishments, a family skeleton is exposed when Edmund challenges the true authorship of the acclaimed poetry. The revelation is a long time coming, among some other startling confessions, but ultimately it paves the way for a more palatable (and blessedly briefer) second act.
A last minute replacement for Davis Hall, who had to bow out, Little offers a scholarly account of the poet accused of literary theft. Ringham’s wine-tippling wife adds flavorful bite, and O’Donoghue lends some spark as the perky but confused daughter. Sorenson is gallant in the underwritten role of the scholar who spills out the final shocking denouement in a much too matter-of-fact revelation.
While the wimpy finale fails to justify the core of the conflict, director Evan Bergman has staged the piece with the fluency of a crisp confrontational debate. Jessica Parks’ comfortable living room design serves as a tidy academic battleground.