If Jack Kerouac was the epitome of 1950s beat culture, road-tripping his way across America, then the photographer W. Eugene Smith might just have been his stationary counterpart, discovering jazz, drugs, and artistry in the squalid comfort of his own home. Jaymes Jorsling, in his ambitious and at times stunning new play, (A)loft Modulation, unleashes Smith’s story from linear time, changes the names to poeticize the innocent, and blasts it full of jazz, all the while exploring what it means to be an American, and what it means, simply, to be.
In 1955, on the way to becoming one of the country’s most important photo-essayists, Smith quit his gig as a photographer for Life magazine, abandoned his wife and children, and, by 1957, had moved into a dingy loft in Manhattan’s flower district. His neighbor was Hall Overton, a jazz pianist/Juilliard music professor. For the next eight years their building would become a late-night hangout for famous musicians and street creatures alike. Smith documented the scene compulsively, producing 40,000 photographs and 4,500 hours of audio tape. Fast forward to the late 1990’s and to Duke University’s Sam Stephenson. Matching Smith’s fervor, though minus the amphetamine addiction, Stephenson and his team catalogued and digitized Smith’s work into what would become known as the Jazz Loft Project.
In Jorsling’s reimagined version of all of this, Smith is renamed Myth Williams (P. J. Sosko), and Overton goes by Way Tonniver (Eric T. Miller). Stephenson plays a major role as well, albeit with the more pedestrian handle of Steve (Kevin Cristaldi). Way’s musician pals include saxophone player Sleepy Lou (Charlie Hudson III) and the troubled but gifted drummer Reggie Sweets (Elisha Lawson). Myth’s open-door (or lack of door altogether) policy, meanwhile, keeps his drug-addled no-good friend Chip (Spencer Hamp) hanging around, along with Skyler (Christina Toth), a prostitute with an artist’s eye and a heroin addict’s weaknesses. And veteran actor Buzz Roddy shows up as a mostly kindhearted street cop.
Under the risky yet always clear direction of Christopher McElroen, and with the aid of streaming video projections, archival photos, and a talented on-stage jazz trio, the play darts back and forth between 1957 and 1964 at random; happier days crashing into disastrous ones as the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination crackle over the radio. A reel-to-reel tape player, center stage, endlessly records it all. Sometimes the dialogue stops entirely and the stage erupts in jazz mayhem, with characters running about and photographs flying by, while the music provides a kind of theatrical statement that words cannot. Simultaneously, but moored in 2019, Steve sits at one side of the stage in the future version of the abandoned loft, doing his digitizing, growing obsessed, and deconstructing the American dream he had built for himself. His wife (Julia Watt) has run out of patience, and his retirement savings have begun fueling his work.
Sosko is a quiet powerhouse in the demanding role of Myth, seemingly in control but a slave to his passions, wanting just “to matter,” while questioning his own craft. The fact that Myth had left Life allows for one of the night’s few clunkers: Jorsling’s observation that he has “quit Life” is way too on the nose to be repeated as often as it is here. But the playwright makes up for it elsewhere with bouts of down-and-out poetic dialogue, especially in the case of Lawson’s beautifully rendered Reggie, who at one point refers to inattentive jazz club audiences as “Picassos”:
Eyes of people not giving me 100 percent. Jabbing me, poking me, and burning me. In backs of heads...facing me instead of faces. Sick eyes pop out. From sides of their necks. On arms. In their backs...judging eyes, sprouting from everywhere...like fungus. Noses are inside of ears.
As Way, Miller grooves to his own happy-go-lucky style until things take an ugly turn in his final scene. Though too often trapped upstage in Troy Hourie’s sprawling menagerie of a set, his performance, especially when supported by Hudson and Lawson, strikes the right chords. Cristaldi’s Steve is as sympathetically drawn as Hamp’s Chip is despicable. And Toth is enigmatic as Skyler, a Sixth Avenue hooker with a Fifth Avenue sensibility who admires Myth’s photographic skills until his lens is turned on her.
Drug abuse and disillusion will ultimately mean the downfall for most all of these characters, with one even overdosing as if in an extended, horrid drum solo. But time, like jazz, is full of codas here. Their lives do not end, they simply loop around.
The American Vicarious production of (A)loft Modulation plays through Oct. 27 at A.R.T./NY Theatres (502 W. 53rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased online at theamericanvicarious.org or by calling (866) 811-4111.