River of No Return

Harry Appleman, the dying poet of Jovanka Bach’s play Nightsong for the Boatman, is seldom at a loss for words. He rails against his unfair predicament, and seeks to hide from his imminent fate. The untidy drama that unfolds, like Harry’s life, resembles a sloppy rough draft, offering allegory in place of real character development, and lacking any variation on the “washed up” writer archetype that is all too familiar. Directed by John Stark, the play opens with Harry (John DiFusco) playing dice with an unnamed bloke on the outer docks of an undefined city. It soon becomes clear that the bloke is actually the boatman of the River Styx, the mythical river of the dead, and that Harry is playing the game for his life. He loses, in short order, and is instructed by the boatman to report back to the docks in one week’s time for his farewell voyage to the undiscovered country.

Rather than keeping his appointment, Harry hides out. The problem is he has told his daughter Jessie (Amanda Landis) to come to the docks to see him off (a complication that, not unlike other plot points, is never justified or explained). Once Harry realizes the mix up, he sets out to undo his misdeed and save his little girl.

The play’s premise, though plenty hokey, is not helped by its staid structure and stock characters. Through a series of cluttered flashbacks, and copious blackouts, we revisit Harry’s debauched life. We meet his considerably younger girlfriend Sheila (Nicole Gabriella Scipione), his jealous colleague Larry (J. Lawrence Landis), his fed up ex-wife Emily (Donna Luisa Guinan), and a sniveling doctoral student named Gordon (Geoffrey Hillback). Though these characters serve as bystanders to Harry’s spiraling off the tracks, it is never apparent what we, or they, are supposed to like about Harry in the first place. His character is the textbook cliché of the flawed, hack writer: womanizer (check!), smug academic (check!), creatively blocked (check!), disdainful of family life (check!), heavy drinker (you know it!). After all this, his crossing the Styx doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. About the only redeeming aspect of Harry is that he was once a brilliant poet, but Bach mars this pretense when she has the character recite his breakthrough poetry aloud. Harry’s poetry is not the stuff of the National Book Award, as the character mentions having won. Sometimes, it is best to leave “brilliance” to the audience’s imagination.

Joe Morrissey’s lights and John DeYoung’s music do a fine job of underscoring the mythical undertone of the piece. Considering the multiple locales of the play, and the limited stage space, Jaret Sacrey’s painted backdrop of a set is unobtrusive, if not particularly inventive.

At its heart, Nightsong for the Boatman is a Faustian tale of a writer forced to confront death so that he may see the wrongs of his ways, and how, contemplating these wrongs, he could become a better man and artist. There’s clearly a lot of soul to squeeze out of this conceit (forgive the quip), but Bach’s script provides little variation or nuance on the theme.

Stark and his cast pull together and move things along at a steady clip. Bach’s dialogue is compressed and never stagnant, but the thread of the piece is too thin to deliver a meaningful end.

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