Sad Jazz

The title of the new play from Extant Arts Company, Blue Surge, is a takeoff on “Blue Serge,” the name of a musical composition by Duke Ellington. This particular musical selection makes the play’s protagonist, Curt, feel an overwhelming and almost tangible sense of melancholy. The song’s namesake play, written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Kat Vecchio, is a representation of some of the more unpleasant aspects of small-town life and interpersonal relationships. The play leaves its viewer with the same melancholy that Curt has faced throughout the play. Unfortunately, beyond this feeling of sadness, the piece gives its viewers little else. Rather than depicting a series of characters who are beaten down by life’s tumultuous twists and turns but who ultimately overcome their situations, the piece instead fixates on a more pessimistic view of the human condition. These characters emblematize a vision of the world as a kind of bondage in which each person is born into a certain set of binding obstacles that are nearly impossible to escape.

The play begins in a massage parlor, in which we believe two subsequent men want to solicit sex. Instead, it turns out that they are cops looking to close the place down. The women of the x-rated massage boutique each befriend their respective clients. The majority of the play focuses on these burgeoning relationships, suggesting both the potential for emotional success in light of social and economic failures and the inevitability of disappointment when attempting to link up interpersonally. We see Curt make a strong connection with the young and inexperienced Sandy, one that seems deeper and more emotionally fulfilling than any he has with his longtime fiancée Beth. On the other hand, Doug and Heather enter into what appears to be the more shallow of the two relationships, but it is also the more equal pairing; both of these two people are flawed individuals who decide to emphasize life’s pleasures over its responsibilities.

There is a lot of dialogue and monologuing that seems designed purely to present the audience with character backstory. For example, the play’s second scene takes place in the police station and gives the two men ample opportunity to share information about their lives leading up to the current moment. In general, most of the text is laden with heavy exposition, which diminishes much of the impact of the intermittent poignant phrases. The writing is for the most part satisfactory but the scenes, when put together as a whole, are relatively directionless. Additionally, the performances are fine, but the story is so slight that is hard to determine what, if anything, these people are after. This begs the larger question of the production: why tell this story?

The production elements are fine overall and the theater space is well-utilized with three principal areas designated for the various locales visited. However, the lighting is often poorly timed and the extended transitions between scenes aid in distancing the spectators from any real emotional engagement.

Throughout the play, virtual strangers talk quite candidly, but it is hard to comprehend why. They neither come to any epiphanies due to their social interactions nor do they appear any less disturbed after having divulged their secrets. The individuals presented in this play have all faced terrible situations, yet they all show little of the human capacity to overcome. They seem bound to unpleasant lives because of their parents, their jobs, their significant others, or just their own complacency. It is hard to sympathize with any of these individuals, as they all appear to have the mental capability and wherewithal to potentially escape from their personal prisons.

The play has sporadic meaningful moments, but the overall presentation is disappointing. The performances would need to be grounded in a more cohesive and relevant tale for them to have any long-lasting impact. Theater should not only be about dark confessions. A story needs something beyond just terrible, borderline unbelievable narratives in order to pack a hard-hitting emotional punch.

Blue Surge suggests that life chooses our places within it and that we can do nothing about that. What is to be learned from the experiences of these characters? Do we feel sorry for them? Feel better for ourselves because we are not them? Gilman’s play leaves its spectator asking perhaps too many questions, and not the kinds from which a lesson can be learned. It feels like an extended jazz riff on a theme of melancholy, one whose parts quite never add up.

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