It‘s a little-appreciated fact that everything that is rebellious, outcast and “outsider” about the American male is embodied in the vanishing figure of the jazz musician. The surly princes of rock & roll (that bastard, miscegenated son of jazz and blues) may have once competed for that honor, but the Rock Band is now a mere entree point to either wealth or sybaritic excess, or both. Today’s corporate rocker-in-training calculates his apprenticeship as one year spent at the Guitar Institute, then another five sharing cheap weed and apartments with four or five people, followed, hopefully, by fame, porn stars and offshore bank accounts.
The jazz man, however, remains true to his elegantly austere traditions. He lives rather mythically but cheaply, the cool threads of his youth eventually replaced by a dissonant medley of patterns and fabrics as age blurs his sense of style. Heroin may be part of his life but only because it has to be; a slave to his muse, he is reminded daily of the fact that his unfashionable art is exalted in every country but his own. Playwright Warren Leight has tapped and trapped this reality for his engaging if uneven slice of Caucasian musician life, Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, currently enjoying its West Coast debut at the Mark Taper Forum under Evan Yionoulis‘ fun-accenting direction.
At the story’s center are Martin and Daniel Glimmer, brothers who blew horns together in a large swing band during the 1950s, until Danny (Nicolas Surovy) married up to a manipulative businesswoman. With matrimony, Danny put away the trumpet and syringe forever to became a successful importer of . . . scarves. Martin (John Spencer), on the other hand, stuck with jazz and his various addictions, the vicissitudes of which land him in an ICU early on in the play. He is resurrected from a coronary-induced coma by Danny, who shows up at his bedside after years of frosty estrangement. In the meantime, Martin‘s young trombonist protege, Jordan Shine (Jonathan Silverman), falls in love with Daniel’s daughter, Delia (Alexa Fischer), and the play‘s course is set.
To be honest, not a whole lot happens during Glimmer’s two hours. No one‘s soul is fought over, no one aches to get signed to a record deal. No one even picks up a sax or slides onto a piano bench, although jazz culture and its fatalistic codes of behavior run throughout the evening, along with Evan Lurie’s cool, blue riffs played over the theater‘s sound system. The brothers Glimmer begin a painful (and painfully funny) reconciliation, some kitchen-sink Dark Secrets that have no real bearing on the play are raised, and Delia admits to Jordan that she neglected to tell him she’s engaged to someone else. Leight‘s real strength here is showing the sweet interplay between the dying, irascible Martin and those who would save his sorry ass.
Glimmer swings between the polar extremes of Martin’s trashy NYC walkup and his brother‘s clapboard manse in Greenwich, Connecticut, with detours to Daniel’s chrome-and-leather Manhattan condo. (Neil Patel, who designed the unbearably cozy sets for the Geffen‘s production of Dinner With Friends last year, nicely demarcates the two worlds without a lot of fuss, relying on a few bits of furniture and some scrim projections.) The resulting scene changes don’t present economic contrasts so much as they do journeys between time periods and conflicting sets of ethics. Martin‘s cluttered pad is the price he has paid for loyalty to his craft, whereas Danny’s sterile lairs are rewards for disowning his muse in favor of marriage and commerce. It‘s no accident that the two old trumpeters are fraternal twins: Each had the same opportunities in life; each made radically different choices with those opportunities.
It’s not too much of a metaphoric stretch, then, to say that the brothers represent two Americas that emerged after the years of the Depression and war. There was the optimistic, generous America raring to cut loose from its cultural moorings, and a paranoid, materialistic country that regarded strangers as enemies, whether they were unfamiliar faces sitting in a bus station or neutral countries at the United Nations. These are issues that were first raised in Beat-era poems like Allen Ginsberg‘s “Howl” and which continue to be sounded to this day in plays like Murray Mednick’s Scar.
Leight makes no secret of his own preference, which he embodies in the raggedy form of Martin. And, as portrayed by the immensely likable John Spencer (The West Wing‘s Leo), Martin runs away with our sympathies as the chain-smoking, dirty-robed joker who is too broke to afford a decent doctor and too proud to beg for charity. This wisecracking hipster knows as many jokes about life on the road as he does chord progressions. (“A perpetual optimist is a trombone player with a beeper.”)
True, Leight sometimes goes overboard with Martin’s innocence about the realities of late-20th-century life (the play takes place in 1990). Upon his release from the hospital, he‘s put up at Danny’s tony uptown digs, where, somewhat as Jed Clampett might, Martin claims ignorance of the condo‘s technological wonders, at one point referring to a microwave oven as a white box with a door and no knobs. (Come on, he wasn’t in a coma that long.)
Perhaps a more detrimental indulgence of Leight‘s is to use up all the warm colors for his portrait of Martin, leaving the other characters as little more than monochrome sketches. While Danny is no villain, it’s plain that Martin represents a more authentic American, a pot-puffing, behind-the-rent mensch. For, overlooking the stage like a jury of gods, is a colossal snapshot of jazz musicians — or is it of the Glimmer brothers and Jordan‘s father, Eddie Shine, in their young prime, playing in their band’s horn section? (The play‘s title derives from the epithet “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine: the glow-in-the-dark trumpet section.”) My bet is that these jazz deities are none too pleased with Danny.
While Danny comes off as stiff, a little imperious and perpetually piqued (sort of like a UCLA vice chancellor hunting for parking in Westwood) he’s nothing compared with his daughter. I‘m not sure Leight realizes how monstrous a character he has created in Delia, a woman who must shop her weight every day or die, and who hasn’t the vaguest idea of what it is like to live outside a room-temperature existence. She is so mirthlessly certain in her declarations of supply-side hubris, so utterly cashmere in her sangfroidness, that you begin to suspect that Leight doesn‘t trust his ability to telegraph privilege — he has Delia do everything but drive an SUV onstage.
If there is a remote possibility that Delia might find some anthropological interest in Jordan, there is absolutely nothing to suggest what he finds compelling in her. Then again, Jordan’s visits to a therapist and ownership of a Visa card hardly put him in the same league as Martin. Neither does Silverman‘s nebbishly laid-back portrayal exude the intensity and moody self-absorption one might expect from a professional jazz musician; even his plaid-shirt-and-ripped-jeans approach to fashion suggests a Nirvana devotee rather than an heir to Jack Teagarden and Bill Watrous.
Still, Leight, whose play about another jazz family, Side Man, won the 1999 Tony for Best Play and will open this spring at the Pasadena Playhouse, has a facility for penning sleek, funny dialogue that doesn’t sound as though it were written for a sitcom, and Glimmer artfully captures the insurgent flavor of jazz and the musicians who serve at its tattered altar. More important, he raises some vital questions about American attitudes toward life and art, about authenticity and fidelity to one‘s artistic vision versus comfort and isolation — issues that are as serious as one of Martin’s heart attacks.