BWW Review: New York ghosts consider the meaning of life and art in the jazz-fueled (A)LOFT MODULATION at A.R.T./NY Theatres
"If you want to know what's wrong with this country, go ask a jazz musician." Jaymes Jorsling's new play (A)loft Modulation is a lot like jazz. Some sections are scintillating, magical and transporting while others are elongated and incongruous. Patience, however, will reward those who travel this path. A fascinating time capsule view into a vivid and complicated world of artists, dreams, demons and drugs awaits.
In 1955, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer quit his job "when Life Magazine was practically the internet." He left his family and moved into a dilapidated loft in Manhattan's extremely seedy flower district. Smith was in search of himself, his vision and his art. Hall Overton, a Julliard teacher, was his neighbor. Their adjoining lofts were the late night haunts of famous musicians (Sonny Rollins, Theolonious Monk), painters (Salvador Dali) and other colorful characters.
Between 1957 and 1965, Smith took 40,000 pictures of life in the loft. He also wired the entire building as a recording studio and made 4,500 hours of audiotape. Music, conversations and cats having sex. A writer named Sam Stephenson researched all of this material for thirteen years. He wrote an extraordinarily well-received book called The Jazz Loft Project in 2009. Jaymes Jorsling's play is inspired by this extensively documented slice of artistic New York life near the end of the heyday of jazz.
The character of Myth Williams is the Smith person from history. His need for art is intense and raw. The driving force? "I want to matter!" His loft has no door and is filled with cameras, pictures, booze and drugs. Upstairs, the Julliard pianist Way Tonniver is composing and jamming late into the night. Reggie Sweets is the brilliant drummer who everyone cannot praise enough.
One of the richest veins found in this play is Reggie's mind. When things are good, "it's all a percussive orchestra." When he sees "the Picassos," however, the pain hurts and his music suffers. Myth asks who the Picassos are? They are the "eyes of people not giving me 100%... in backs of heads... from sides of their necks... judging eyes, sprouting from everywhere...like fungus."
Reggie turns to drink and drugs, as do many who frequent this loft. Skyler is the prostitute who Myth befriends. Chip is a junkie. This world is alive with creativity, angst, self medication, joy and hardship. The Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of JFK weave into this messy fabric. In between scenes, improvisational jazz is played. Directed by Christopher McElroen, the mood setting of the period feels right.
(A)loft Modulation also takes place in 2019. Like the original researcher, the character of Steve Samuels (Kevin Cristaldi) discovers this treasure trove of images and piles of unlabeled audiotapes. His intensive perusal through these artifacts becomes our journey. Time shifts back and forth. There is a moment late in the play when Steve listens in on the early days. After all of the drama already endured, it was jolting to see the inhabitants returned to vibrancy and possibility. The last line was quietly heartbreaking and utterly perfect.
This play does need some editing. The scenes which are least effective are between Steve and his wife (Julia Watt). She's in real estate and introduced Steve to this forgotten museum. His passion and drive to be consumed by something resonates strongly. As someone driven by a passion for theater and writing after decades within the business world, I related to his desire to be immersed and energized by something non-linear and personally mesmerizing. The simplistic bickering between the two, however, added little to the significant depths and themes of the overall story.
As piano player Tonniver, Eric T. Miller may have been beamed in from the era. His physicality and presence were astonishingly real. Why can some artists frequent this loft and yet not be consumed by their darkest impulses? Mr. Miller's performance as someone straddling the creative and pragmatic nicely hinted at a possible answer to that question.
PJ Sosko plays Myth Williams and is completely believable in the role. I love that I did not like him even though I do admire tenacity. As portrayed by the excellent Elisha Lawson, Reggie was the most contrasted individual with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Even the grifter Chip (nicely embodied by Spencer Hamp) devolved as time progressed.
Humor is often employed by these individuals. They seemed to enjoy each other, their collective dreams and quests for excitement despite the obvious potential for destruction and chaos. Horn player Charlie Hudson III (Sleepy Lou Butler, terrific) may be the character who most helps us see the fun in this loft. The female roles were tougher to swallow. Christina Toth's Skyler did not seem like a drug-addled prostitute from the period but she was effective in her relationship chemistry.
All of the action occurs on a memorable multi-level set design by Troy Hourie. The building is presented as a cross-section with every room wide open for observation and study. A large scale diorama with sound and movement ingeniously captures then and now (lighting by Becky Hiesler McCarthy).
This story is for those people interested in New York history, the creative mind, a willingness to pursue life unfettered by societal norms and the fragility of the human spirit. (A film would not surprise me at all.) As a play, A(loft) Modulation is a bit too slow and measured. The vast amount of thought which came to me afterward nevertheless makes this production worthwhile. Here's an opportunity to listen to ghosts and consider the meaning of life and art. That does not happen everyday.
A(loft) Modulation is presented by the american vicarious at Alliance of Resident Theatre/New York (A.R.T) and is scheduled to run through October 27, 2019.