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Stage I, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York (Through Dec. 14)

"This is a train wreck," says a character in John Patrick Shanley's "Romantic Poetry," an astoundingly misjudged attempt at a new musical. And unless the playwright wants most of Manhattan Theatre Club's audience silently nodding their heads in agreement, he would do well to cut the line.

Shanley has brought us several excellent plays and film scripts over the years -- from "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," that portrayal of raw loneliness circa 1984, to the Oscar-winning "Moonstruck" (1987), to "Doubt," which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

But there really is no kind way to describe "Romantic Poetry." It's off the rails.

It's hard to know what Shanley intended. The glistening red curtain at MTC opens to reveal a set that looks like a cross between Busby Berkeley and one of those resorts that offers heart-shaped jacuzzis. Here, newlyweds Connie (Emily Swallow) and Fred (Ivan Hernandez) careen from kisses to kvetching in the space of three seconds, while an irate caterer named Frankie (Jerry Dixon) and the resort's hostess, Mary (Patina Renea Miller), become amorous behind a scalloped, satiny curtain.

Possibly this is supposed to be farcical. There are songs about Long Island (it's sort of a plot point): "Rising from the Gloom/The five towns/Like five Egyptian tombs." And, later, there are songs about becoming an artist: "Where is my real life" Fred sings. "I feel this one's fake.../Has there been a mistake?" Shanley also wrote the clumsy, unfunny lyrics; the music of Henry Krieger ("Dreamgirls") is pleasant but innocuous.

It all tries to morph from farce to operatic melodrama to some kind of political statement: "No one listens to the poor/Though they're right there at the door." After an almost interminable two hours, including intermission, the musical ends on a note of brotherly love, complete with the requisite foot-stomping gospel number.

Shanley stages the show, too, and one is tempted to indulge in that old saw about how playwrights should not direct their own work. But there is a 99.9% certainty that another director would have made little difference to the outcome.

The excellent cast deals with this embarrassing material with the utmost professionalism and indomitable verve.

May "Romantic Poetry" pass quietly and quickly into theatrical lore.

Cast: Jeb Brown, Jerry Dixon, Ivan Hernandez, Mark Linn-Baker, Patina Renea Miller, Emily Swallow.
Book-lyrics: John Patrick Shanley.
Music: Henry Krieger.
Director: John Patrick Shanley.
Scenic Design: David Korins;
Costume Design: Laura Bauer;
Lightnig Design: Donald Holder;
Sound Design: Brian Ronan.


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