Thursday, October 3, 2019

81 (2019-2020): Review: (A)LOFT MODULATION: A PLAY WITH JAZZ (seen September 29, 2019)

“All That Jazz”

Three of the shows I saw this past week had intermissions, leading some members of the audience at each to take their leave early. I sympathize with those who left two of those shows early, including whoever did so at (A)loft Modulation; A Play with Jazz, Jaymes Jorsling’s oddly titled, ambitious, but ramshackle play, performed with large infusions of live jazz, at the A.R.T./New York Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen.
Company of (A)loft Modulation. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Some background is necessary before we get to this fictional dramatization of a New York residence famous among jazz aficionados, produced by the american vicarious. Its story has been told previously in books and in Sarah Fishko’s well-received 2016 documentary, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.

Smith was an acclaimed photojournalist for Life, then America’s most popular weekly magazine. In the mid-1950s, he suffered personal and professional crises, including great dissatisfaction with how his work was handled by Life. So disturbed was he that he resigned, abandoned his wife and four kids in Croton-on-Hudson, and moved, in 1955, into a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, in the then unsavory “flower district.” There, for a decade, he wallowed in booze and drugs while being a late-night host to artists and musicians, including such jazz icons as Thelonius Monk, Zoot Sims, and Charles Mingus. His neighbor in the adjoining loft was the notable jazz musician and Juilliard classical music teacher, Hall Overton.

Smith was a virtual hoarder of pictorial and aural mementoes of his years in what came to be known as the “Jazz Loft,” not only obsessively taking pictures—over 40,000—of its happenings, but keeping reel-to-reel recorders going surreptitiously to the point that 4,500 hours of conversation and music were taped. His archives ultimately were thoroughly researched and written about by Sam Stephenson, director of the Jazz Loft Project at Duke University, and the inspiration for Jorsling’s character, Steve Samuels.

Jorsling’s rambling, episodic play, presented on a cramped, cluttered, tri-level set designed by Troy Hourie, and complexly lit by Becky Heisler McCarthy, is set both in the 1957-1964 period and today, sometimes with characters from the past occupying the same space as those in the present (as in In Old Age, currently at the New York Theatre Workshop). The action jumps around among situations in the past and present, the former involving fictional characters based on Smith, Overton, and their friends, the latter focused on the conflicted relationship between the Sam Stephenson avatar, Steve Samuels (Kevin Cristaldi), and his wife, Annie (Julia Watt).
PJ Sosko, Christina Toth. 
The Smith character is Myth Williams (PJ Sosko), which, of course, inspires talk about mythology. Overton is Way Tonniver (Eric T. Miller), another symbolic moniker, and their substance-abuser friends are the drummer Reggie Sweets (Elisha Lawson), the sax player Sleepy Lou Butler (Charles Hudson III), the junkie Chip (Spencer Hamp), and the hooker Skyler, who becomes Myth’s photography acolyte. (For whatever reason, Skyler, played by the sleekly constructed Christina Toth in stylish red wigs—is costumed by Elivia Bolenzi [whose other costumes work better] to look more like a fashion model than a skanky streetwalker.)

Aside from Reggie, who’s probably based on drummer Ron Free, it’s not clear who these friends’ real-life equivalents were. The play takes a way-overlong two and a half hours to wander around in subplots concerning everyone’s stories, including those of two inquisitive local cops, one from each era. He's played by the same actor, Buzz Roddy, in more or less the same way (albeit with a tonally authentic NYPD attitude) but wearing different jackets.

One of the play's more consistent throughlines concerns a discovery about who actually wrote a famous jazz number. The problem is, it’s a fictional tune so, when the composer is finally uncovered, we couldn’t care less. It's not as if we learned that Duke Ellington didn't write "Sophisticated Ladies."

The general premise is that, as we watch various moments in the lives of the loft’s long-gone denizens during its heyday, present-day Steve is studying Myth’s tapes and photos of what we're seeing. He’s so fixated on documenting them (while trespassing in the abandoned loft) that, without asking Annie, he quits his job so he can devote his every minute to the task.

This creates ongoing tension between the couple, as Steve can think of no better reason to explain his need to do the work than because, unhappy at his job, his documentation is something that will make his life matter. It's a thematic point also expressed about his own work by Myth. Strangely, despite Annie’s insisting on knowing his end goal, Steve never volunteers that he’s going to write a book or produce some similarly useful outcome to justify his sacrifice.

As he listens to the tapes, headphones on, much of what he’s hearing is acted out as when it was first spoken. He works in a kitchen area down left, while the action is mainly performed on a slightly raised area at stage right, while other scenes are seen even higher in Way’s loft. There, saxophonist Jonathan Beshay, drummer Kayvon Gordon, and bassist Adam Olszewski, join the actor-musicans playing Way and Sleepy Lou for some intense jam sessions at multiple intervals.
Kayvon Gordon, Jonathan Beshay, Adam Olszewski, Eric T. Miller, Charlie Hudson III.
The loft scenes sprawl confusingly through the late 50s and early 60s, with video projections (credit Adam J. Thompson)—some of it distractingly live, à la Ivo Von Hove—and old radio sound bites (credit Andy Evan Cohen) providing occasional background exposition or atmosphere—the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, etc.

Meanwhile, we watch Myth’s clique take drugs, drink bourbon, contemplate their potential, talk about and have sex, drop names, spout profanity, suffer existential angst, and experience a suicide.The play also alludes (with few details) to Smith’s trip to Japan in 1964, when he famously documented the effects of the Minamata pollution tragedy. Often, simultaneous scenes in two time periods require the dialogue in one to be cross-cut with that in another. 
Eric T. Miller, PJ Sosko, Charlie Hudson III, Spencer Hamp. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Myth and Way, especially the former, lapse into intellectually pretentious dialogue that, even if borrowed from actual transcripts (I have no idea) is dramatically stultifying. Myth’s language is especially pretentious, using words like “esurient” even to a presumably uneducated harlot. His verbal pretentiousness is such that, instead of simply saying he quit his job with Life, he’s more apt to observe “I divorced myself from their jurisdiction.” 

The wonder is that, under Christopher McElroen’s sharp direction, the actors invest their artificial lines with a sense of truth. Otherwise, the only thing to trust in this bleary exercise, as my jazz aficionado plus-one assured me, is the superior quality of the original jazz (by Gerald Clayton) we hear.  

A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through October 26