It's the season of John Patrick Shanley in Nashville. June 9 through 11, as Tennessee Rep's Ingram New Works Festival wraps up, the noted playwright and screenwriter's new original script, Sleeping Demon, will have formal staged readings on the campus of Vanderbilt University. At the same time, the Nashville premiere of Shanley's 2005 work Sailor's Song is playing at Actors Bridge Ensemble.
Sailor's Song has many interesting moments, its diverse but interrelated themes running the gamut from the philosophy of romance to Hollywood musical fantasy to uneasy male bonding. Human meditation on love and death is the inspiration here, and Shanley creates fluid, playable dialogue.
Yet at times, the play — with its whimsical and sometimes dour flights of fancy — feels more like an idea-rich writing exercise than a wholly formed theatrical experience. It's wordy, structurally schizophrenic, and more critically, a tad naive in its expectation that audiences will buy into its brand of idealistic hokum. There are times when Shanley's take on what a good man seeks in a good woman sounds suspiciously familiar — for example, Jack Nicholson's "You make me want to be a better man" shtick in the film As Good As It Gets. That said, Shanley is still a great writer, and we are engaged most of the time.
Don Griffiths' rather prosaic staging is invigorated by occasionally jarring but tightly executed dance interludes choreographed by Alyssa Maddox and Carrie Gerow, the latter also serving as the show's chief dancer.
Shanley's script sets up in coy fashion, as a South Atlantic merchant seaman named Rich (Brent Maddox) returns to port and meets two charming sisters. Rich is smitten doubly, and love is in the air. One of the women, Lucy (Robyn Berg), seems like the solid best bet for a serious relationship. But the allures of sister Joan (Jessika Malone) are very compelling — she's a psychic, an "automatic writer," we're told — and her unpredictable nature impresses Rich deeply, his obvious respect for Lucy notwithstanding.
Rich is one of Shanley's poetic male figures — who can forget Nicolas Cage as Ronny Cammareri in the author's Moonstruck? — and Maddox does lyrical roles well, even though it's a stretch to believe he's a rugged man of the sea. He's presented with one of the classic tough decisions facing the red-blooded male: Does he want the supportive and loving helpmeet or the exciting muse?
Meanwhile, Rich's uncle, John (Bill Feehely), is on a death watch, as his wife Carla (Gerow) is succumbing to cancer. In the course of the painful waiting game, uncle and nephew launch into colorful point-counterpoint — on family, love, women, sex, life itself — with John's cynical POV affronting the young romantic and seeming callous given his wife's condition.
Scenes move from realistic conversations to the unlikely and unexpected, including a rowboat excursion. The show's strong musical component — Gene Kelly's "Singin in the Rain" (featuring Maddox and Berg's capable sound-stage-style pas de deux), Fred Astaire's version of "The Way You Look Tonight" and various ballads from vocalists like Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Mathis and Engelbert Humperdinck — is clearly as vital to its message as the author's finely etched words. Gerow's lithe yet earthy dance number — awakening from her death bed in yet another of the play's dreamlike passages — is performed to the accompaniment of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." On the technical end, Paul Gatrell's set has a rough-hewn but arty seaside appeal,
Superficially, Shanley's play holds our attention, but his story's forward movement and his characters' earnest musings are compromised by an artifice that allows the author to approach serious topics but also leaves the drama hollow. Despite their generally eloquent readings, cast members here emerge ultimately as stick figures mouthing Shanley's sentiments, but without any credibly developed (or felt) emotional spark.
With a running time of about 80 minutes, performed in one act, Sailor's Song embarks on an agreeable though problematic theatrical voyage, just barely making it into safe harbor.
Actor's Bridge returns to action July 29 through Aug. 6 with the Nashville premiere of Steven Dietz's Becky's New Car.
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