nytheatre.com review by Michael Ferrell
November 10, 2007
I am a theatre person who doesn't mind seeing plays about theatre people, written by a theatre person, for an audience most likely consisting of theatre people. In his play Bad Jazz, Robert Farquhar joins such writers as Shakespeare, Pirandello, and Stoppard in writing a play that satirizes while at the same time wrapping you up in the stories of these broadly drawn theatre denizens. If it seems insular to watch a play such as this, so be it; the play unapologetically proves that theatre itself is insular at times and while I also have the potential to enjoy plays about coal miners, it feels good to indulge.
The first thing I must mention about The Play Company's British import Bad Jazz is that it is raunchy. I don't know how else to describe a play that shows you a few different varieties of sexual acts and throws around obscenities like they're drumbeats in Stomp. For my taste, the sexual and profane nature of the play was not gratuitous. It was gratuitous, however, for a member of the audience who walked directly through the middle of the stage (the Ohio Theatre is set up that way) to escape a particularly unrelenting scene. In order to enjoy this play, one has to realize that it is a satire and it helps to be in on the joke. I could point out that the theatre is a vital, living, breathing art form that inspires such strong reactions with mere words and stage actions, but then I would risk sounding like Gavin, the pretentious theatre director at the center of the play.
Bad Jazz follows two young actors, Natasha and Danny, and the aforementioned theatre director in their rehearsal process, creating a play that seems to be about junkies and prostitutes. Predictably, life starts to imitate art and vice versa. The three main characters spiral downward fairly quickly, taking with them a civilian ex-boyfriend, a disturbed playwright, a business-minded producer, and a male prostitute with showbiz dreams of his own.
The set, designed by Dane Laffrey, is transformed brilliantly into a theatre space that is as raw as the play itself and sets the tone for a world where we muck about in sex, drugs, profanity, bodily fluids, and of course, art.
The reason that this play succeeds is because it goes deeper than a mere sketch of how absurd theatre people are. Farquhar gives us a throughline and a protagonist (sort of). He also exhibits control and patience, so that we actually start caring about these characters and the ridiculously intense situations in which they've found themselves. That is also due in part to the acting, which is across the board magnificent.
Maintaining the necessary energy and emotional output required of these characters all the while doing accents is no easy feat. Rob Campbell is three-dimensional and convincing as Gavin, the idealistic director. Ryan O'Nan has a firm grasp on the dim but likeable Danny, and Marin Ireland carries the play well on her shoulders as Natasha. Susie Pourfar and Darren Goldstein are excellent in their various roles and Colby Chambers rockets into the play as Ewan, the Scottish male prostitute, displaying indisputable acting chops.
At almost two hours with no intermission, the play is long, though it doesn't get boring. But they could stand to cut some of the dialogue and shave some time off, especially when the concept of blurring the scripted dialogue of the characters-as-actors and the unscripted dialogue of the characters starts to wear a little thin. Though generally, the scenes move along at a good pace and Trip Cullman's directing is tight and uncluttered. The style of the play—sometimes absurd comedy, sometimes heavy drama, sometimes door-slamming farce—might be best summed up as a theatrical dark comedy. And while the schizophrenic nature of the play could easily be a cause for criticism, it's probably important to remember that the walls that usually encompass a stage are down for this one, both literally and figuratively. The title of the play, Bad Jazz, seems kind of arbitrary, which might be the point, but also might do the play a disservice.
Towards the end of the play, the producer character asks Gavin, the director, "What if someone walks out?" as Gavin's staging of the play-within-a-play becomes increasingly obscene. Proving a good question at the performance I attended, the answer seems to be that Bad Jazz accomplishes what I believe it sets out to accomplish. It satirizes the over-the-top shocking nature of some contemporary art while at the same time being shockingly over-the-top—in a good way.