Type too small?
I've followed Warren Leights fine tragi-comic memory play Side Man from its first New York City production at the Classic Stage Company, to the Roundabout theater and to its transfer to the Golden Theater where it's still playing. Convinced this was a playwright who would in the next twenty or so years develop a substantial body of work, I grabbed the chance to see two Off-Broadway limited runs of his earlier works, Stray Cats, and High Heeled Women (see link at end for reviews and interview).
Like any writer who nabs the gold ring -- Side Man was short-listed for the Pulitzer but collected a Tony for best play -- Leight now must overcome the "can you top this" dilemma. With this in mind I went to see his new play with a mixture of anticipation and concern that it would not live up to the standards of its predecessor.
Luckily the news about his latest, Glimmer Brothers is all good. It is a fine companion piece to Side Man yet it stands solidly on its own merits. The story of Daniel ad Martin Glimmer again focuses on jazz musicians of the big band era and their family problems. It again brings off that most difficult of theatrical feats: a play that is at once serious and funny.
Cunningly constructed, the first of the 22 fast-paced scenes shows Martin, (John Spencer) a 65-year-old ex-junkie in a hospital bed, a mask over his face and tubes attached to his nose and arms. He sits up, as if out of the coma he's in, and delivers a lengthy monologue which, despite the grim setup could be the opening number for a comedy act (Leight's early career as a comedy act writer has stood him in good stead as a playwright). The one-liners come fast and furiously but they contains all the seeds of the story we are about to witness. While this quick-on-the-draw wit prevails throughout, the play's dark and often painful feelings never get squashed beneath the comic mask.
Martin's coma is the central event propelling us back and forth between the present and the past when he and his twin Daniel (Terry Beaver) were jazz trumpeters. The lifestyle of their jazz days cemented their twinship even as it tore them apart which is why the impoverished Martin now claims no kin except Jordan (David Schwimmer), a trombone player and former student who happens to be the son of the third trumpeter in the "all electric trumpet section" known as Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine.
Brother Daniel who has gone "straight" is married to a woman who has banished jazz and all its associations (that includes Martin!) from their prosperous lives in Greenwich. Given the geographic coincidences of life in New York and its environs, it is a perfectly believable coincidence for Jordan and Daniel's daughter Delia (Kim Raver) to meet. Their Connecticut dinner party hostess was friendly with Jordan during her less conformist college days and still likes to have "one creative person at the table."
Delia and Jordan become an instant case of opposites attract -- she's your typical well-adjusted, well put together girl who has bought into the good life her parents have always provided; he's admittedly depressed, with what little money he has going for therapy rather than clothes and good haircuts. And so they chat. As she suspects, Jordan has never heard of her family's textile company, Glimmer Scarves. But while he may not know the family business he's no stranger to the Glimmer name. He is close to Marty Glimmer and remembers his brother Danny (her dad) from childhood and his father's meticulously kept scrapbook. Delia hasn't an inkling about her father's former life or that she has an uncle.
Thus, in two short scenes, the groundwork for the story -- and reunion -- of the estranged brothers and the unlikely romance of Daniel's daughter and Martin's godson is deftly established. The other twenty scenes (ten for act one and twelve for act two) flow one into the next with equal fluidity, the last interchange of one often picked up at the beginning of the next.
As Delia meets her uncle and finally persuades her father to see his brother who may die any minute, all four of the play's characters take on additional textures. The bits and pieces of the real reasons Marty has been "air brushed" from his brother's life, become clearer and clearer, especially after the flashback in which Raver and Schwimmer take on the persona of the characters who otherwise only appear as part of the dialogue -- her mother, Martha, and his father, Dave Shine. This is not just a clever economic device for having six characters for the price of four actors. Without being a surprise spoiler, having the same actors play Martha and Dave and Delia and Jordan subtly underscores the play's final point about missed opportunities.
The playwright's good fortune, and ours as viewers, is that he's once again found a director and cast to bring his characters vividly to life.
Scott Ellis has assembled a stellar foursome and drawn strong performances from all.
David Schwimmer perhaps best known as one of television's "Friends" strikes just the right low key as the son of the trumpeter with whom the brothers shared a band stand and Daniel's then fiancee Martha her bed. Jordan obviously cares deeply for Martin, yet backs away (watch him literally back away from his bed) as he tries to disentangle himself from the responsibility of being the designated next of kin.
John Spencer and Terry Beaver are particularly wonderful. They play off each other like the two perfectly attuned horn players they once were. Spencer's Martin lands his ripostes with impeccable timing. His every cough sounds like the final knock on death's door. His jazz man habits are so subtle that they almost slip by you -- like the cigarette put out in the pants cuff. Beaver is as fine in the less showy role of the brother who has spent forty years reinventing himself. Though he initially seems more concerned about the safety of his car than his brother's health, his emotional turnaround when it comes is totally convincing. Kim Raver is a good fit for the young woman who, in helping Jordan bring her father and new-found uncle together, also lifts the veil of complacency from her Greenwich gloss.
The play needs little in the way of elaborate staging. Allen Moyer's strategically positioned chairs and a sliding back panel and Kenneth Posner's always on target lighting clearly suggest the various locations. The second level restaurant bar scene is used just once but that one scene is a crucial one. Dramatic as this second tier is, it will hardly be necessary on the larger stage to which Glimmer Brothers will almost certainly travel before too long.
While Glimmer Brothers isn't as autobiographical as Side Man, the playwright's tenderness and compassion for the musicians who peopled his father's and, by extension, his world, is again at work, investing the play with warmth and integrity. The Glimmers are at times awful, but they are always authentic. Most importantly they have fired up these actors who in turn fire up the audience.
CurtainUp reviewed the Tony Award-Winning Side Man in each of its New York permutations -- at Classic Stage . . .at the Roundabout . . .at the Golden
We also enjoyed an assemblage of his earlier work during a brief Off-Broadway run: Stray Cats
Concurrent with the opening of Side Man and Stray Cats we also did an interview interview with the playwright, with a brief update after
a revue which included skits from his earliest stage gig-- Night of a Thousand Heels
Man: The CD . . .don't be surprised if another CD comes out of Glimmer Brothers.
Editor's postscript, 7/22/99: A CurtainUp reader, Beth Shanley, A CurtainUp reader, Beth Shanley, wanted to know "does your very enthusiastic review of
Glimmer Brothers and your prediction that it will move to Broadway mean that you consider it ready "as is" or a preview style performance? I thought I'd add my answer as a postscript to this review--
I'll have to answer that one with a yes and no. The performance I saw was the second performance. The playwright was himself on hand not simply to watch his play being performed but to give it the "tweaks" that are always part of the page to stage process. Undoubtedly, the Glimmer Brothers as seen on Broadway will reflect an evolutionary process -- an added bit of dialogue here, a cut there, a changed emphasis elsewhere. There's also the matter of casting and staging changes due to other commitments and choice of venue.. At that, the final version won't be final.
It is the possibility for change and growth, the "work in progress" aspects of live playwrighting and acting that gives the theater its excitement. And so, as with any premiere, the essential story is finished. If a play's preview version has really deep fault lines, no amount of fixing is likely to work (the recent major rewrite of Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel proved something of an exception though this much redone "new" musical that flopped is more likely to do well as a regional revival than a twenty year later major Broadway hit). This brings us back to Ms. Shanley's question. Yes, the Williamstown production is finished in the sense that it established the essential quality of the play. I doubt that Warren Leight is quite finished making it better.
Playwright: Warren Leight
Director: Scott Ellis
Terry Beaver/Daniel Glimmer,
Kim Raver/Delia Glimmer,
David Schwimmer/Jordan Shine,
John Spencer/Martin Glimmer
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound Designer: Matthew Spiro
Nikos Stage, 1000 Main Street (Route 2 east), Williamstown, MA.Nikos Stage, 1000 Main Street (Route 2 east), Williamstown, MA.(413) 597-3400
BOX Office: (413) 597-3400; Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
24-hour Information Line: (413)597-3399
Evenings: Tuesday - Friday 8:00 p.m.; Saturday - 8:30 p.m.
Matinees: Thursday & Sunday 2:00 p.m.; Saturday - 4:00 p.m.
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
July 14-July 25, 1999; opening July 14
Reviewed by Elyse
Sommer based on July 14th performance