THEATRE REVIEW: “Nightsong for the Boatman” at the Barrow Group Theatre

This twenty-year-old “trunk play” should have stayed put – the production that results at the Barrow Group Theater on 36th street, courtesy of Director and Producer John Stark, is somehow turgid and rushed all at once. Actors spit out their lines with little pause for emotional reflection, which undercuts the gravitas Bach’s play requires its audience to feel toward the characters and situation.

Midway through this ninety minute production, I found myself wondering if there was one element I could isolate that was sabotaging the feel of this play; if the blocking were different, would the play be better? While it would help to have blocking that connected with the emotional journeys or the narrative requirements of the production, at times it’s all-too-obvious that there are no real underlying reasons for characters to move as they do.

Take, for example, an early scene where the protagonist’s adult daughter Jessie (Amanda Landis) arrives at a dock with instructions that she is to meet her father there to say goodbye. At first, Stark’s direction has Landis arriving from the audience, making her entrance step by step down the long aisle that bisects the audience. Coming at this early stage in the play, the sudden introduction of actors into the audience space opens up a new realm of possibility without breaking our suspension of disbelief or pulling us out of the story – to a point.

As I sat there, I remember thinking, “This is going to be a really dynamic scene, because the director has to get the actors to make us believe that a lone young woman is going to head down to the deserted docks in the middle of the night to approach two shady guys she’s never met.” And for the first few moments, Jessie’s hesitation seemed well-acted and believable.

Where the scene fell apart was, for me, in the director’s impatience of getting her down to the side of the water – and the complete lack of real tension once this point has been reached.  Within moments, and with no real emotional space (each line seeming more rushed than the last), Jessie has walked straight to the edge of a deserted dock, with the two creeps (who we know to be instrumental in the central dilemma faced by protagonist Harry (John DiFusco)) cutting off her chance of escape.

Thanks to Stark’s impatient and unexpressive direction, a scene that could have been taut and filled with cajoling, actors taking their time with their lines and really stretching to find the meaning in the playwright’s words is instead rendered into a terse, explosive, and cartoonish series of exchanges, wholly defeating – and wasting – any sense of tension that director John Stark has achieved with Jessie’s impressive and attention-grabbing entrance. Sadly for Landis, it’s a sharp downhill turn from here on out, with delivery that chews up the scenery and rote, passionless blocking that becomes almost too frustrating to watch.

The real question is, why the rush? Nightsong for the Boatman is only a ninety minute play, and while one could argue that Bach’s script offers lyrical dialogue or a deeper look at the human condition, if that were the case wouldn’t the script benefit from being stretched over a little more time?

Jaret Sacrey’s set design is the play’s primary selling point. It is dark, moody, and utterly appropriate to the unfolding morality tale. Sound, lighting, and costumes are rendered so basically that they’re hardly worth mentioning. Ultimately, Nightsong for the Boatman fails to become more than the sum of its parts, and that sum is not all that high to begin with. The press release for this production explains that Stark “was rummaging through the belongings [of] his deceased wife, playwright Jovanka Bach, when he uncovered a never-before-seen copy of Nightsong for the Boatman, which she had written over twenty years ago and never shown him.”

While his attempt to bring his wife’s work to life is laudable for its emotional generosity, Mr.  Stark may want to consider the possibility that Bach had good reason for keeping Nightsong a secret.

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