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First Nighter: Red-Eye to Havre de Grace Works and Doesn't

04/30/2014 11:22 pm 23:22:45 | Updated Jul 01, 2014

Before Red-Eye to Havre de Grace supposedly begins, a pleasant fellow in a Philadelphia Park Ranger's uniform steps onto the stage from a side aisle in the New York Theatre Workshop auditorium and introduces himself as the guide at his town's Edgar Allan Poe Museum. He says he has a few things he'd like to clear up about the famous writer, whose life, as we all know, was a shambles -- died penniless, et cetera.

It turns out, however -- not that nobody hasn't already guessed -- he's part of the actual piece. He's Jeremy Wilhelm, one of the writers, along with David Wilhelm, Geoff Sobelle, Sophie Bortolussi, Poe player Ean Sheehy and director Thaddeus Phillips.

We know for sure that this Wilhelm is an actor the second the red curtain is pulled back, and he suddenly bursts into song (strong voice, he's got, too), accompanied on upright piano by David. The entire sequence right up to that point packs a great deal of charm -- a word not anyone would instantly attribute to Poe, by the way. So an observer is right to think that something charming and original is about to unfold over the promised 90 minutes.

An observer would be right, although the creators, working on this item for quite some time under Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental auspices and only now getting it to its New York premiere, may be forgiven if they still aren't successful at fully realizing the off-center enterprise they clearly want to offer.

Their intention alone earns them copious merit points. They're out to depict a quirky version of what befell Poe during the last few days before his October 7, 1849, death in Baltimore. Little is known about what Poe was going through, but the impression the makers give is of having fun with common perceptions about Poe as a tragic figure.

Yes, to some extent, he was not fortune's child. His writings, of course, demonstrate that he didn't have much truck with the idea that fortune ever smiled uninterruptedly on God's children. But sending up those time-hardened views by showing Poe taking mishap-ridden train trips from Maryland to Philly to New York -- one of the legs in the wrong direction -- has the effect of giving the benighted author a nice break from posterity's assumptions.

The problem is that after a while the incidents in which Poe finds himself are not sufficiently engaging. It's funny, very funny when he attempts to pay for a night's lodging with a poem, but it's less funny when he continues being stalked by a ghostly woman in a white slip or nightie (Alessandra L. Larson), who might be his deceased wife but who also struck me, rightly or wrongly, as a possible symbol of the spectral women in Poe's short stories.

Maybe she's the fictional Annabel Lee, following him around after he's made her the 19th-century national name she didn't ask to be. Maybe she's both Annabel Lee and Poe's late wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who's often considered the inspiration for the lady of the poem that so many of us had to commit to memory once upon a time.

What must be said for Red-Eye to Havre de Grace (Havre de Grace being the Maryland town where Poe was headed when on the wrong train) is that in Sheehy, it has an actor who looks like Poe risen from that Baltimore grave -- and resurrected not in the best of health. The hair and the mustache -- shaved off in an amusing sequence that evokes the perils of Sweeney Todd -- help enormously. So does the evidently verbatim (or close to it) testimony of a certain Dr. Sartain, who tended to Poe somewhere in those final couple of days.

Much is added by Phillips's design, which centers around three doors that serve as tables when needed; around Drew Billiau's moody 19th century-evoking lighting; and around the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. original music. Jeremy Wilhelm raises his voice in forceful song a good deal, and David Wilhelm keeps plunking away, often hitting chords series intended to establish those trains Poe rides.

This is probably the best place to make a minor comment on Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, which is apparently regarded as a musical. There may be a fine line between what qualifies a property as a musical and what qualifies it as a play with music, but to my way of thinking, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace comes down solidly on the play-with-music side of that fine line.

While the enterprise doesn't entirely hang together, there are moments when it once again lifts to delight. At one of those junctures, the completely unexpected sound of Neil Diamond singing his elegiac list song "Done Too Soon" splits the air, as piped in by sound designer Robert Kaplowitz. The ditty does mention Poe and includes the lyric "They all sweated under the same sun." Who would dismiss out of hand anything that provides this surprise?