… departure …

What a bunch of characters!  On an isolated wharf lit by a bright moon two men are engaged in a Jacob and the Angel-like struggle shooting dice.  Murlie, with a tough-guy accent, looks like a denizen of the docks as does his soft-spoken, shaved head buddy Dunbar. When Harry loses, he’s sure the dice are loaded — we’re sure, too. But what are the stakes? Big but undefined. All we know is that Harry’s compelled to reappear at this spot at midnight in a week. Sounds spooky, and it is. Even the naturalism of the dock and thuggish Murlie are surreal. The waiting rowboat with its high Viking prow looks too small for going far or holding much — like the boat in the center of Max Beckmann’s triptych in the Museum of Modern Art, Departure. And like that painting this play is filled with mythic suggestion.

From a scary start on the docks, the play morphs into a witty, richly drawn domestic-academic comedy. Harry returns to regular places like apartments. It turns out he’s a poet, teaching in a university, who published a well received book some years back but now is open to nagging by anyone who wants to get at him, like his wife Emily, with “you haven’t done anything important lately.” He leaves her and Jessie their small daughter — left them years ago in the current chronology of the play — and meets up with Sheila, a young poet groupie whom he lives with long enough to call her an “aging flower child.” She’s also become a locally successful poet herself. Jessie, who’s grown now into a feisty, charming young woman, adores her dad, to her mother’s chagrin. An earnest graduate student, Gordon, is writing his dissertation on Harry (he’ll be at it 15 years is Harry’s sarcastic assessment). Larry is on hand as (merely) acting Head of the English Department but while he comes on as a straight arrow, in a threatened pinch he grants Gordon a hurried PhD.

A week — along with all those flashback years — passes and Larry is compelled to appear again on the lonely docks with the two frightening thugs. Instead he invites his daughter ( ! ) to see him off on a long journey (in that boat?) and arrives late, leaving the girl at the mercy of the thugs.  Talk about scary. But just in time Harry arrives and so does everyone else looking for him and Jessie. The thugs, it turns out, are open to resolving what turns out to be Harry’s somewhat Faustian bargain by taking anyone with them to that other place who’ll go willingly — shades of Alcestis — and, although this is not a place that usually attracts volunteers, for one fascinating reason or another, everyone volunteers. Who goes? All I’ll say here is, it’s the betrayer.

Nightsong For The Boatman is rewarding and joyfully funny with its rich and varied characters, all wonderfully acted. John DiFusco runs the gamut of life experience with a tough affect but a poetic sensitivity;  this is a huge role and he carries it off with power. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Donna Luisa Guinan as Sheila: she has a gorgeous smile and always makes you think she’s going to say something worth that smile –as she expresses life’s disappointments and impasses. No wonder Harry loves her!  J. Lawrence Landis’ deadpan as Larry is a hilarious counterpoint to the passionate crew around him. Michael Byrne as the creepily smooth Dunbar, and Alexander Wells as Murlie, the volatile tough are appealingly opposite in their “good-bad-guy bad-bad-guy” interplay. Jaret Sacrey’s set is stunning — the broken juxtapositions of the painted flats of waves harmonize with the uncertain balance of the play; the moon seems like its own character.

This is a skillfully crafted play, beautifully acted and designed, and a totally enjoyable and rewarding evening of theater.

Nightsong For The Boatman plays at the Barrow Group Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan through January 30th.

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