By any measure, Philip Litwin is a brilliant man. A world-famous heart surgeon, he's saved 20,000 lives over his long career. He sleeps but three hours a night, plays a virtuoso jazz clarinet, is known to take off, unannounced, for Paris or Martha's Vineyard and, when bored at 3 a.m., he reads the same novel over and over again -- "Moby-Dick." Why not? Like his favorite work of fiction and his musical hero, the late jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, Philip's life is characterized by "obsession and adventure."
And Philip's friends are along for the ride. There's Marcel, his loyal attorney and financial adviser. And Emily, his wife, who was charmed by Philip's impulsive and romantic nature. Both are mesmerized by him. Neither can say enough good about him. And both have reason to hate him.
Given that setup to Stuart Flack's "Sidney Bechet Killed a Man," now running at MetroStage, we can only expect to witness the fall of Philip Litwin -- and we do. Fall he does. But that's about the only predictable element in an ambitious play that wrestles with an old question: What is genius in the absence of conscience or humility? Our first impulse is to say "evil," but as Flack shows us, that's a little too easy.
The more we learn about Philip, the more intriguing his wife and friend become. Strip away Philip's glorious talent and the money that comes with it, and what we have is a fundamentally selfish man who does as he pleases without regard to the pain it inflicts on those closest to him. That he gets away with it for so long says something about the motives of Marcel and Emily. Are they his victims -- or his accomplices?
As Litwin, Paul Morella provides an interesting mix of charm and guile, finding warm tones in what could be a dangerously cold character. He is nicely matched with Kimberly Schraf as his pragmatic wife, and to his credit, he's not overwhelmed by the presence of that chameleon Lawrence Redmond as Marcel. Redmond is the image of grace, precision and restraint, down to his carefully trimmed gray beard, his rigid bearing and clipped Ivy League speech.
Director Nancy Robillard takes a stripped-down approach to Flack's fast-moving text, relying on the sparest of props and Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.'s black-and-white set pieces to shift the action from place to place. That set is itself a metaphor in contrast -- a clever backdrop to Litwin's complex rationalizations and to the audience's own natural impulse to categorize the doctor as good or bad.
Robillard's casting, however, is a curiosity. For despite a fine performance and the requisite gray coloring in his dark hair, Morella is easily 20 years too young for the part. The text clearly depicts Litwin as a man 40 years out of medical school. Why Robillard chose to use an actor in his forties to play a character in his sixties is a question I cannot figure out. (Schraf, too, is miscast. While an appropriate choice to play opposite Morella, she is also too young for her part.) In some respects, such casting seriously undermines the impact of Litwin's fall. The tones ring differently when the tragic figure is at the end of an otherwise spotless career, rather than a man at midlife who could, in theory at least, rebuild.
It's to the credit of the actors that this question arises as an afterthought, just one of several nagging questions that stay with you at the play's end. "Sidney Bechet" is a genuinely adventurous work, breaking with linear storytelling structure and at times mimicking the jazz musician's penchant to riff on a theme. Such risk-taking is exciting to see, but here, just when Flack needs to crank up the pressure on Philip, he introduces new characters that, while offering further insight into Philip's divided persona, steer the action away from the resolution of Philip's central problem. Flack eventually gets back to it, but it's a maddening digression at a point in the play when the author needs to tighten his focus rather than expand it.
Sidney Bechet Killed a Man, by Stuart Flack. Directed by Nancy Robillard. Lighting, Adam Magazine; costumes, LeVonne Lindsay; sound, Chas Marsh. With Michael Jerome Johnson, Marie Page, Isaac MacDonald. Approximately two hours. Through April 6 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 703-218-6500.