Fans of bawdy humor, unite! Robert Farquhar’s Bad Jazz, at the Ohio Theater, pivots around a rather raunchy premise: Natasha (Marin Ireland) is an actress, and her director, Gavin (Rob Campbell), wants her to engage in an actual act of oral sex onstage instead of a stimulated one. Far from sensationalistic, however, Farquhar’s play uses this move as a starting point to address the blurry line between performance and reality. As Jazz unfolds, the audience is often unsure whether the actors are playing characters in real life, the play within the play, or some layer in between. In this way, Jazz is not unlike Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, similarly structured and posing similar questions. But is this play the real thing? That answer is yes, though perhaps not an unequivocal one. Jazz, directed by Trip Cullman, is not a play for everyone, as one devilish scene early on makes patently clear. Jazz may not be a dirty play but it is certainly an adult one. Though her boyfriend, Ben (Darren Goldstein) objects, Natasha opts to go on with the performance. What follows is the birth of a tangled relationship between her and co-star Danny (Ryan O’Nan) that bleeds on- and off-stage, leaving Farquhar’s audience to guess as to what exactly is going on. Are Natasha and Ben carrying on in real life or just in character? When are they themselves and when are they performing?
What makes Jazz so strong is that Farquhar never cowers behind his premise; he plays both the comedic and dramatic moments straight rather than opting for low-brow humor or self-referential witticisms. Ireland does a masterful job of shading in Natasha, making her sensual, determined and fragile with the right combination of both forced and tentative vocal delivery and posture. What is more, we get to see her evolve over the course of the show from naïve actress to experienced – and slightly bruised – lover. O’Nan, too, is fully committed. Ben is a physically demanding role, portraying coitus (the sex scenes are carefully, if perhaps not discretely, choreographed) and his bumbling character’s more nervous tics. Goldstein, too, is a forceful presence, one that I wish had appeared more often in Jazz.
All of the actors refrain from tongue-in-cheek banter, particularly Gavin. As the director with demons of his own, he is the catalyst for all of the action in the play. He constantly pushes the boundaries between Ben and Natasha’s relationship (and in doing so, their relations as well), stemming from his own frenzied pathos. As the play moves on, we learn far more about his self-hatred, particularly in a central scene involving rent-boy Ewan (Colby Chambers) that is as amusing as it is ultimately horrific. Susie Pourfar also plays several roles, most notably as the playwright of the play-within-a-play, but, unfortunately, none of them are sufficiently developed. I, for one, was left wondering what exactly troubled her.
Cullum also makes one tactical error in staging this two-hour play without an intermission. I think it would have helped audiences digest the plot without destroying its momentum, and his actors are so reliable that they could have helped the audience dive right back into the material. Bart Fassbender’s music and sound design and Dane Laffrey’s costuming choices are also to be commended.
For the most part, however, Farquhar’s oddball plotting results in a tantalizing evening that asks many questions about the invasive role of performance in an actor’s life. The same question can be posed as to the effect of any kind of art in any artist’s life. That he allows his audience to ponder these questions without directly providing an answer is Farquhar’s greatest feat of all.