"Poetic License" is a slyly-named, clever play by Jack Canfora about a renowned, middle-aged poet who is suddenly accused, at the pinnacle of his career, of having plagiarized everything he's written.
The tense, articulate production opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at 59E59 Theatres.
Geraint Wyn Davies, always impressive, is well-cast as John Greer, a seemingly humble, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and esteemed professor of literature at a northeastern university who is about to be named U.S. poet laureate. Liza Vann plays his wife, Diane, with waspish bravura. Sharp-tongued and manipulative, Diane has successfully managed her husband's career for 25 years, creating lucrative opportunities for him.
The play takes place on one pivotal evening in the family living room, as only-child Katherine (a spirited portrayal by Natalie Kuhn), a college student and aspiring poet who worships her father, nervously brings home her live-in boyfriend, graduate student Edmund (Ari Butler), for what she expects to be a private family weekend celebrating John's birthday.
Evan Bergman fluently directs the progressively confrontational drama, as the characters exchange lively dialogue of the kind expected from a foursome drenched in academia. While everyone tries to be cordial at first, relations are strained between mother and daughter, and Katherine must continually fend off her mother's barbed comments. When Diane says, right after meeting Edmund, that she hopes he and Katherine work out, Katherine says sarcastically, "And another chapter in my memoir's just written itself."
Canfora also provides a meaty part for Diane, as nearly everything she says is a witty zinger, all delivered with acidic relish and poise by Zann. When Katherine tells Diane after dinner that Edmund's mother raised him until her death when he was 14, a mildly drunk Diane exclaims thoughtlessly, "Jesus, John, our daughter's sleeping with a Dickens character." John gently refers to his wife's stinging comments as her "lambent wit" and genially points out to Edmund, "Every family's a foreign country. Impossible to understand all the nuances of the native culture."
But Edmund, whom Butler at first plays as apprehensive, sweet and bashful, is soon revealed to have his own agenda, and it's not to ingratiate himself with Katherine's parents. Instead, Butler slowly exposes his character's simmering rage, and Edmund's desire to honor the memory of his mother.
The shocking allegation about the origin of John's much-admired poetry is gradually revealed halfway through the play, built up to in well-staged scenes between Edmund and John as they exchange heated allegations. Canfora has written several surprise twists into the plot, and as the Greers struggle to keep up with the confusion Edmund creates, other secrets burst out.
Even in a rumpled gray cardigan sweater, Wyn Davies is impressive, first as a loving father and understanding husband, then masterfully calibrating John's unraveling into a cornered beast when his career and credibility are challenged. Wyn Davies escalates his character's fury as John turns defensively mean and nasty while refuting Edmund's accusations.
Much of the final scene depends on Kuhn's ability to look confused and stunned, as her character learns of betrayals by both her boyfriend and her father, and John inadvertently destroys the pedestal Katherine's had him on all her life. The Greer family is left in tatters by Canfora's script, having begun the evening in more or less smug complacency, but ending it with a white-hot annihilation of their security and happiness.