Playwright Explores Link Between Jazz and Theater

"Live Bird" and "Alley Cats" by Jeff Robinson at the ICA till Feb. 17 Tickets: $12.50 in advance, $15 at the door

The Institute of Contemporary Art's dual production of two one-act plays by Jeff Robinson shows just how uneven a young writer's work can be. "Live Bird," Robinson's one man exploration of the genius and eventual self-destruction of Charlie Parker, is solid, compelling, and mostly focused. On the other hand, "Alley Cats" is a scatter-shot, histrionic muddle of faces and voices limping towards symbolic meaning and falling short by miles.

"Live Bird" is both rich and dense, condensing in the short space of an hour the history, career, and demise of legendary alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, who died at 35, wasted by drugs and alcohol. Robinson portrays Parker in the late stages of alcoholism, playing a final gig for desperately needed money. As Robinson mimes interaction with a bartender, a young interviewer, friends, and past-acquaintances at the bar, we learn the sad facts of Parker's short life: his estrangement from wife and child, his destitution in the wake of his fellow musicians' celebrity and success, and his inability to hold on to his own glory due to alcohol.

Robinson portrays Parker with deft restraint, convincing us that he has resurrected the sad genius on the bare, black stage. This transcendence is successful in part because Robinson intersperses his monologue with lengthy performances of Parker's own saxophone solos: "Koko", "Warming up a Riff", and "Parker's Mood". Robinson plays so well and so compellingly that we can only imagine the sublime experiences of hearing Parker himself play live. The sax provides a respite from the depressing facts of Parker's life; when Robinson stops playing, we miss its mellow loveliness. The instrument itself becomes a symbol; in its interplay of sound and silence, it makes literal the poignancy of Parker's genius and early death.

Parker, in Robinson's hands, is doubly damned, both by his self-destructiveness and his awareness of his own role in this destruction. In one scene, he warns a young man not to make the mistakes he has made with drugs and alcohol: "If you mess with that shit you miss the best years of your life, years of pure creation". "Live Bird" makes us realize just how much we've missed out on in losing Charlie Parker so young.

The play is not without its flaws. A meandering subplot in which Parker leaves the bar to wander next door is perplexing and distracting, and moments of direct interaction between Robinson and the audience come a bit too frequently. This interaction works when Robinson-as - Parker dedicates a song to a young woman in the audience, but is less successful when he addresses certain audience members as if they were acquaintances and expects them to improvise their half of the dialogue. These minor excesses are not enough to mar the subtle, touching portrait of Parker painted by Robinson's "Live Bird". Unfortunately, this is just the type of self-indulgence and excess that inflates "Alley Cats" into a cartoonish and unsuccessful mess.

Conceived as a Beat-type riff on the problems of race and disempowerment in the inner city, the play starts to careen out of control in the earliest minutes. While an unseen saxophonist plays, tableaus of conflict are played out on the stage. A young man (Kevin Crockett) fights with his preacher father (Tyrone Bean); a preposterous, grade-schooler's version of a prostitute (Melanie Futorian) fights with her john (Dwight Hart). Meanwhile, incredibly realistic-looking homeless people (Nick Linski and Tania Guimond), complete with filthy hair and that unsettling, rocking motion of the mentally disturbed, drift through the audience, with cups out for money.

The barrage of images and actions on the stage is silly and weak. The scene's lameness derives from the artificiality with which these situations are "acted", with no uniform way of implying that this artificiality is intentional.

Offset with the hyperreality of the homeless characters in the audience (several audience members drew close their valuables or else took out change to give the actors, assuming they were authentic), the sum effect is one of deranged imbalance. This is especially true when a jazz band takes the stage and the homeless pair perform a choreographed dance and pretend to be playing along on tubes shaped like saxophones and guitars. The scene is perplexing, pointless, and childishly extreme.

All this is a shame given the quality of Robinson's musical compositions and the unmistakable talents of the band, formed by Robinson himself on saxophone, Kevin Crockett on guitar and Dwight Hart on drums. It would be much more enjoyable -- and sensible -- to hear the trio play for an hour without the interference of the play's pseudo-narrative and the ridiculous fumbling of the weak cast, especially the offensive Miss Futorian in an inane cameo as a white store owner who launches inexplicable tirades against the black band members.

Whatever dignity or solidity the play may have had is blown apart by the last scene, which is so preposterous as to border on slapstick. John the guitarist is killed in a comically unconvincing mugging; Joe the drummer is hauled off by the police after being accused by the prostitute of some vague crime, in response to which she does a hilarious touch-down-type victory dance. To make matters worse, all this is narrated by the formerly mute homeless man.

"Alley Cats" is quite possibly theater at its worst. Robinson seems to have lost all the restraint, subtlety of message and clarity of vision which makes "Live Bird" a satisfying drama. The cast of "Alley Cats" is unspeakably poor, except for Robinson himself and drummer Dwight Hart. The whole mess is like a childish scribble obscuring the quality of Robinson's music. One can only hope that Robinson either returns to the more focused, steady approach of "Live Bird" or abandons drama altogether in favor of his music. If "Alley Cats" is any indication, Robinson's career may mimic that of his hero Parker: a promising talent, wasted by excess.