The great Duke Ellington once said New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet was "the very epitome of jazz." Known for his pioneering excursions deep into Dixieland jazz on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Bechet brought soaring passion to his music.
Sadly, little of that fervor and improvisational essence has survived in Stuart Flack's play awkwardly incorporating Bechet's psychic legacy into its themes. Bearing the unfortunate title "Sidney Bechet Killed a Man," the play is receiving its "East Coast premiere" at Alexandria's MetroStage.
MetroStage bills this seven-year-old drama as a new play. It is not frequently performed, which makes it new to most theatergoers, but that may also say something about its intrinsic value. Two of the area's finest actors, Paul Morella and Lawrence Redmond, work hard under Nancy Robillard's direction, but their talents are ultimately wasted in this coldly clinical look into the heart of a gifted but reckless doctor.
World-famous heart surgeon Philip Litwin has saved the lives of 20,000 people, but his zeal for the mission is undermined by his reference to his patients as "my body of work," as if his skill were an artistic achievement rather than a miracle for those he has saved.
Oh sure, he says the requisite things about helping his fellow humans, but with Morella's overly controlled and self-absorbed delivery, Litwin's words seem more about keeping score than keeping the faith. Litwin is a man of obsessions, reading "Moby Dick" over and over and listening endlessly to Bechet's recordings. He also plays jazz clarinet and links musical achievement with the skills of a surgeon.
Morella does not convincingly convey a sense of Litwin's age, seemingly two decades older than the actor, or the bearing of such an esteemed and celebrated man. Rather, he maintains a tightly coiled persona, showing a man who loves his family (and his best friend's wife) but takes his real joy in winning, especially in aggressively investing his significant wealth.
Litwin seems emotionally crippled, and there is little improvisational or jazz-inspired about him, especially as Morella launches into long monologues that should seem extemporaneous but come across as carefully rehearsed, oft-expressed musings.
Redmond brings bite to the role of Marcel, Litwin's friend, lawyer and financial adviser. He leads the surgeon to financial ruin, perhaps deliberately in passive-aggressive return for being cuckolded for 20 years.
Litwin's rage at being forced into bankruptcy leads him to commit a murder, and only then, as he jets off into oblivion, is any passion is expressed. Flack has written a marvelous monologue in which Litwin sees the flight as a metaphor for life, people carrying on with mundane chores and ignoring the amazing feat of aerodynamics happening about them. If only the rest of the play had the same ardor, the playwright might have been on to something.
Litwin, Marcel and several other characters, including Mrs. Litwin, played by Kimberly Schraf as the perfectly pampered wife, and a variety of people, dead and alive, energetically portrayed by Michael Jerome Johnson, frequently step forward to talk directly to the audience for extended sequences.
That usually means the playwright does not know how to convey a message in the context of live drama. Why Flack did not write this as a short story rather than a play is a mystery.
Marie Page vividly creates several characters, while 9-year-old Isaac MacDonald briefly appears as Litwin's son.
Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.'s set is fitting, a stark and emotionally barren space in which corrugated aluminum panels move about to accommodate different scenes. The lighting from Adam Magazine is problematic, with spotlights that shroud the actors' faces in shadows even as they bare their souls in monologues. But then, maybe that's appropriate for the playwright's murky message.
"Sidney Bechet Killed a Man" runs through April 6 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Fridays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call 703-218-6500 or visit www.tickets.com.