There's more than just a shot of didactic romanticism in John Patrick Shanley's Sailor's Song - it's more like a double or a triple. But this is one of those cases where you don't need to worry about getting drunk on a playwright's pronouncements about love and loss; while Shanley has doled them out here in an unquestionably intoxicating way, they're also equally sobering and uplifting.
The show, a production of the LAByrinth Theater Company, is snuggled in the Public Theater's Shiva Theater, at once too small a space and just right: While this show is little more than a rumination about the intertwining relationships of five people in an American seaside town, it's injected with enough movie musical magic to give it a panoramic, almost epic feeling. When the characters break into dance (backed by "Tales from the Vienna Woods" and "The Blue Danube," among other selections) to communicate their feelings in ways words can't express, the Shiva feels too tiny to contain all the charm generated by the show and its bewitching performers.
These warm good feelings envelop you like a blanket on a cold winter night and are critical in suffusing half of the show with an atmosphere of romantic engulfment. This gives the other part of the show - a more realistic examination of death, and how best to search for and obtain true meaning in our lives - a grittier, more "good for you" feeling. Director Chris McGarry has smoothly blended these contrasting concepts into a heartwarming and instructive whole.
At the center of the play is Rich (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a boat worker taking some leave to visit his uncle and dying aunt. At his uncle's urging, he goes to a local bar, where he meets two beautiful sisters, Joan (Katie Nehra) and Lucy (Melissa Paladino): Joan is a medium, who lets her hand be used by the spirits of the dead to write their thoughts; Lucy is considerably more earthbound. Lucy likes Rich, but he's attracted to Joan, the unknown quantity he believes could provide the more interesting adventure.
Rich's solution is to try to have both, something his uncle John (Stephen Payne) warns him against, for fear he'll end up with neither. Rich currently is, as John once was, lost at sea, looking for something but unsure exactly how to find it; Rich's attempts to find his own way while distancing himself as much as possible from both his born-again father and John suggest he might have more in common with them both than he has any intention of admitting.
Though the play itself is brief, running under 90 minutes, it's surprisingly robust; Shanley has almost perfectly balanced lush romance, sparkling comedy, and human drama. Barry McNabb's endearing choreography, which makes extravagant use of available stage space, is integral; it highlights every emotion, every nuance of plot and character with subtle wit and color. The show's set (by Camille Connolly, an alluring representation of the seaside community's skyline), lights (Beverly Emmons), costumes (Mimi O'Donnell, mixing earthiness with Technicolor know-how), and sound (Elizabeth Rhodes) lend the work a fairy-tale, watercolor quality, while betraying none of the work's dramatic intensity or inherent charm.
The performers are also just right: Mastrogiorgio is ideal as a contemporary middle-class everyman experiencing real love for the first time; Nehra carefully releases Joan's quirky eccentricities in small doses, and Paladino proves a good, grounded counterpart for her. Payne starts out a bit rough as the live-for-the-moment John, but becomes much more effective when faced with his role's meatier material later on. Alexis Croucher makes only a few brief appearances as John's wife Carla, but her every moment is memorable.
So are so many things about this production; Shanley and McGarry have treated every moment with such great care, it's as if they expected to create a memory as wistfully recallable as that of a first kiss or a trip to an exotic historic locale. For the most part, they've succeeded - small imperfections, like some repetitive, roundabout writing late in the show seem to melt in the heat of Rich's smile when he first dances with Lucy, or her quiet resignation later when she sees how much he really prefers her sister.
It's the moments like these, and a dozen or so others, that make Sailor's Song as unforgettable as the life experiences it documents. It's a winning look at romance - with other people, or with life itself - in all its joyous but fleeting glory.
LAByrinth Theatre Company