Blue-Note Baroque

I wondered whether Warren Leight, having won me over with his Side Man, about jazz musicians, could score again with his new Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, about jazz musicians. Does lightning strike twice? No. The play is contrived, manipulative, uninvolving: It glimmers, glimmers, and fizzles out.

A dazzling jazz trumpet section of the fifties, consisting of the twins Martin and Danny Glimmer and Eddie Shine, is now, in 1990, a dim memory. Eddie is dead; Martin, a reformed drug addict, lives in poor health and poverty in the Bronx. Danny has been transformed by his wife, Martha, into Daniel, a rich Greenwich, Connecticut, scarf manufacturer. He has renounced his past, and has raised his daughter, Delia, in complete ignorance of his former self and the very existence of Martin.

Jordan, Eddie’s son and Martin’s musical disciple, meets Delia at a wedding reception, where he is merely part of the band. They fall for each other, even though Delia is engaged to the suitably wealthy and proper Chuck, conveniently in Asia on a yearlong business trip. Their shared affection for the warmhearted, feckless Martin is a further bond between them. As is hot sex.

Will Martin survive the illness into which he plunges? Will Danny, on Delia’s urging, make peace with Martin? Would Jordan give up his trombone, as Danny did his trumpet, and settle down into a respectability that might make him eligible in Delia’s eyes? Will Daniel, having been abandoned by Martha, pick up the trumpet again? Might Jordan and Delia’s compatibility be based on – horrors! – consanguinity? These questions dance before us like motes in a sunbeam, and are nearly as interesting.

Leight revels in trickery. Any number of consecutive scenes are acted out concurrently stage right and stage left, with the two sets of speakers artfully interconnecting, overlapping, or deliberately getting into each other’s hair. For one particularly flashy flashback, Jordan and Delia become Eddie and Martha in the process of betraying the absent Danny.

Fateful misunderstandings proliferate. Background jazz is less well integrated than in Side Man. Hit-or-miss one-liners are tossed about prodigally. Martin soliloquizing during his coma borders on the cutesy. And Evan Yionoulis, the director, has cast two totally dissimilar actors, about fifteen years apart in age, as the twins. The usually able set designer Neil Patel does not sufficiently differentiate and characterize the various locations. Even the acting is uneven.

John Spencer is aptly witty and cynical as Martin, but why must he so often speak in slow motion? Brian Kerwin cannot make the transition from Daniel back into Danny compelling. Seana Kofoed is far too unappealing as Delia. Only Scott Cohen, as Jordan, truly clicks. There are funny moments here and there, but the humor feels unspontaneous: In the better patches, it is Warren lite; in the worse ones, a Leight that failed.

Belatedly, I caught up with The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien, who also performs its numerous and diverse parts. She starts out as 6-year-old Elizabeth, a precocious – but not too precocious – kid in Johannesburg under apartheid, and ends up as Elizabeth the married woman, living with her husband in California, but now on a visit with her small son to a new South Africa and her old father. (Mom has Alzheimer’s, and is somewhere in a retirement home.)

In between, Miss Gien encompasses Elizabeth at various ages, Mom and Dad, sundry Afrikaners, Anglos, and blacks, all with perfect accents, sometimes singing native chants. It is an extraordinary performance – or, rather, some dozen or more extraordinary performances of beautifully controlled panache.

The story – of the immigrant English-Jewish doctor and his South African-born wife, their daughter Elizabeth, their neighbors and kinfolk, friends and foes, black servants and servants’ children – is a good one, reflecting as it does the larger issues and changes in a convex mirror of a representative yet idiosyncratic family. Obvious autobiography but deftly fictionalized, it is told with great sympathy but without a shred of self-pity or sentimentality.

Then there is the acting. Miss Gien totally and movingly becomes all of her disparate male and female, young and old characters – in voice, body, limbs, and that mesmerizingly modulating face of hers. It is a sweet and pretty countenance that can become contorted into a Munchian shriek, a child’s importunate obstinacy, a beleaguered housewife’s exasperation, a hectoring soldier’s grimace, or anything else. And all that in the twinkling of an eye, separated at most by the whirling around of her lithe, willowy body, abetted by eloquent arms ending in searching fingers, and propelled by bare legs springing from svelte, nervous feet. The energy expended is enormous, yet the actress conveys nothing but airiness and ease.

Kenneth Foy’s set is a mere swing suspended from an invisible syringa tree in front of an earth-colored cyclorama on which Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting rings enthralling changes. William Ivey Long’s dress for Miss Gien is a simple, beige, loose-fitting second skin; Larry Moss has directed with similar unobtrusiveness. The Syringa Tree may have grown in Johannesburg, but thanks to Miss Gien’s artistry and humanity, it takes life-enhancing root in all of us.

A witless pocket musical, The It Girl, has deservedly just closed at the York Theatre Company, but harbors arrogant delusions of reopening on a grander stage. This would be a mistake for all concerned. It was distinguished only by having the most untalented and unprepossessing leads in recent history, though the leading lady, with some experience in movies and TV, is said to have “a face the camera loves.” Who would have thought that the camera had such bad taste?

Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine
By Warren Leight.
The Syringa Tree
Written and performed by Pamela Gien.

Blue-Note Baroque