Writer: Jaymes Jorsling
Director: Christopher McElroen
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In 1957, American photographer W. Eugene Smith moved to a loft building in Manhattan’s flower district, where he conducted his Jazz Loft project. Though the neighborhood was dicey, his building was frequented by a number of jazz greats— Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonius Monk among them—who came to play with Smith’s neighbor, Julliard professor and jazz composer Hall Overton. From 1957 to 1964, Smith not only photographed the late night jam sessions in Overton’s loft, he recorded many of them, as well as other sounds from the building and neighborhood, on a reel-to-reel recorder. Sam Stephenson, director of the Jazz Loft Project at Duke University, spent years sifting through the recordings and photographs from the Jazz Loft, most of which were not seen by the public until Stephenson published his research in his 2009 book Jazz Loft Project. This period of Smith’s life and Stephenson’s time researching it form the basis for the american vicarious’s latest production, Jaymes Jorsling’s play (A)loft Modulation, directed by Christopher McElroen and playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres.
The plot of (A)loft Modulation jumps back and forth in time, alternately focusing on the day-to-day lives of the residents and guests of the Jazz Loft in the late 1950s and early 1960s and on a researcher in 2019, Steve Samuels (Kevin Cristaldi) who finds himself fighting to balance his passion for his research with his marriage to Annie (Julia Watt). As he listens to recordings, the events they captured play out— photographer Myth Williams (PJ Sosko) obsessively photographs and records the world around him while his neighbor Way Tonniver (Eric T. Miller) hosts nightly jam sessions with musicians Sleepy Lou Butler (Charlie Hudson III) and Reggie Sweets (Elisha Lawson). Also representing the world outside are Chip (Spencer Hamp), a young junkie, Skyler (Christina Toth), a sex worker, and a cop (Buzz Roddy). A jazz trio—Jonathan Beshay on saxophone, Kayvon Gordon on drums, and Adam Olszewski on bass—accompanies much of the action.
The production elements in (A)loft Modulation are top-notch. Especially solid are Troy Hourie’s multi-level set, Adam J. Thompson’s video design and Andy Evan Cohen’s intricate sound design. The acting is also solid, especially Elisha Lawson as Reggie Sweets. That there is so much good work on stage make it frustrating that the script’s plotting is so uneven. The first act is mostly to blame here; it clocks in at ninety minutes, most of which established the world of the play and the characters. There are several beautiful montages where a combination of live music, manic video, and wordless movement show us the scope of Myth’s obsessive work, but after a while they didn’t advance the action much. The second act was both shorter and much more engaging, but not everyone stuck around for it.
Eugene Smith’s life is a fascinating subject for a play; Jorsling’s script and McElroen’s direction capture the feel of late 1950s New York without a lot of nostalgia, but there is some glorification of the misunderstood male genius. Myth and his twenty-first century counterpart Steve are both so focused on their unpaid “pursuits of perfection” that they ignore the ways that they hurt those around them until it’s too late. The play’s women serve as obstacles or muses for the men rather than fully developed characters, while even the minor male characters are defined by what they do, not what they do for Myth or Steve. The subtitle of the play is “a play with jazz”, but in the end this feels more like a jam session with scenes.
Runs until 27 October 2019 | Photo Credit: Joan Marcus