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Theater review: 'Nightsong for the Boatman' at the Odyssey Theatre

November 24, 2010 | 12:20 pm

IMG_8495-2"Nightsong for the Boatman" at the Odyssey is by the late Jovanka Bach, a full-time physician whose canon includes "Chekhov & Maria" and "O'Neill's Ghosts." Produced and directed by Bach's husband, John Stark, "Nightsong" modernizes the sacrificial switch-off familiar from the Old Testament's Jephthah, Euripides' "Alcestis," Mozart's "Idomeneo," et al.  At least, we think that's what's afoot.

The wildly episodic narrative follows Harry Appleman (John DiFusco), a boozy, lecherous poet and college professor prone to purple-hued outbursts that might shame a greeting-card scribe. We first meet this unrepentant narcissist shooting craps with lowlife Murlie (Alexander Wells), who, as it turns out, ferries departed souls across the river Styx. Seriously.

Having thoroughly alienated his intimates, from ex-wife (Donna Luisa Guinan) to mistress (Nicole Gabriella Scipione) and colleague (J. Lawrence Landis), Harry is at florid wit's end to avoid the debt that Murlie and sideman Dunbar (Michael Byrne) exact. One potential substitute is ambitious Gordon (Geoffrey Hillback), Harry's perpetual graduate student. However, the Stygian thugs will settle for Jessie (Amanda Landis), Harry's teenage daughter.

You want to be sensitive toward what is obviously a labor of love, because words fail to do justice to the shipwreck on display. Miscast as a detestable pedant, the ever-acute DiFusco and his fellow players, who range from solid professionals to game amateurs, do yeoman work. Designers Jaret Sacrey (set) and Joe Morrissey (lighting and sound) provide a measure of ambience.

It might as well be Ambien, alas, for the whirlpool tides of an atonal, inchoate text and painfully risible staging sink their efforts. The production should lose its unneeded intermission. Charity prohibits further comment.

-- David C. Nichols

"Nightsong for the Boatman," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12. $18. (310) 477-2055.  Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo:  Nicole Gabriella Scipione, John DiFusco, center, and Geoffrey Hillback. Credit: Miriam Geer Photography