Purely by kismet, John Patrick Shanley has three shows up this month, two of which have just opened. The 1984 hit Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a story about two completely screwed-up people in the Bronx, each trying to turn the other into his or her salvation. The 70 minutes of invective and crumbling defenses are a testament to Shanley’s reputation for violent romance— like Frankie and Johnny, except that the cops might need to be called in. The competent revival, directed by Leigh Silverman, is done ample justice by the remarkable actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Rothenberg.
But in the past twenty years, Shanley’s work has become ever more fearless. In last season’s undervalued Dirty Story, he took on the Middle East with a genuinely funny allegory. Next up: the topical Catholic-school drama Doubt. And what comes between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the priest scandals?
Death, of course, which brings us to Sailor’s Song. In this transcendent work, classily directed by Chris McGarry, Shanley concerns himself with nothing less than mortality and its effect on ambition and love. Rich has come to a dreamlike seaside village to sit by the bed of his dying Aunt Carla with his uncle John. “Ever have anyone die?” says John. “It’s the weirdest.” Sailor’s Song captures the timeless superreality of the deathbed, where infinite potential and total futility appear side by side.
Meanwhile, at the local bar, Rich meets two sister-sirens—the earthy banker Lucy and the ethereal automatic writer Joan. The thrill of that first night is rendered, as is Carla’s death, in moving dances by Barry McNabb. At 75 minutes, Sailor’s Song is a perfect poem—bittersweet, complex, and utterly lovely, as close as theater can be to music.