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At the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Cecile Goldman Theater to March 30

Sidney Bechet Killed a Man

By Stuart Flack

Directed by Nancy Robillard

At MetroStage to April 6

“I don’t know where to begin” is how Jump/Cut begins, and an inarticulate stammer is what ends it. In between the struggle for words and the surrender to wordlessness, though, Neena Beber’s savvy, solid new play says plenty—timely things about our fascination with victims and with voyeurism, as well as timeless things about friendship and ambition, striving and its worth.

Paul, the agreeable young man who’s having such trouble expressing himself, is a hardworking filmmaker on the rise, and it’s his latest project that’s brought him to his tongue-tied impasse. Encouraged by his grad-student girlfriend, Karen, he’s been making a documentary about his lifelong friend Dave, who’s lately been camping out on Paul’s couch, scarfing down potato chips, watching TV, “working” on a long-gestating novel, and generating no shortage of domestic friction. The hook: Dave isn’t entirely stable—which is why he’s still on the sofa, why he hasn’t finished the book, and why Paul and Karen haven’t long since kicked him out.

Beber builds her characters and their conflicts so carefully, with such an efficient and graceful layering of personalities and ideas, that I don’t want to supply more than that rough sketch of Jump/Cut’s setup; as for where it goes, let’s just say that Karen’s research focus, which encompasses both the making of martyrs and the mechanics of fame, is at once incidental to the play’s plot and crucial to its theme.

It’s an accomplished and eminently marketable piece of work, this three-hander—structurally sound, snappily written, shot through with enough humor to stave off the maudlins that might easily have overwhelmed it. And Leigh Silverman’s staging, a Woolly Mammoth co-production in Theater J’s home space, measures up confidently: Eric Sutton, Colleen Delany, and Michael Chernus are the fearless and well-meshed cast, while Silverman’s direction is both strong (she’s found ways to echo film’s narrative techniques onstage) and spare (she’s not overpleased with herself for doing so, and she knows when to get out of the script’s way). Erhard Rom’s bare-minimum set captures the nondescriptions of Paul’s apartment living room in frames within frames, one of which extends beyond the frame of the proscenium arch to pierce the auditorium’s comfort zone; it’s a fine visual metaphor for a play that’s concerned with the overlapping worlds of life and life being documented, that ponders the intrusions and influences of the one upon the other.

Or perhaps that should read “of each upon the other.” Jump/Cut is too smart, too human, to be interested merely in the inevitable corruption a documentarian brings to the thing he’s documenting; Beber understands that the process works both ways, that the watcher pays a price, too—not least in the currency of creative control. And, as Dave hints with a bridge metaphor that provides the play’s other framing device, that it’s the tension between endpoints, the space covered in suspension, that’s the richest and most dangerous territory—for friends, lovers, filmmakers, and playwrights alike.

What it is that Stuart Flack wants us to understand about his own increasingly unstable protagonist isn’t quite clear. Nor is Flack’s command of structure, at least by the evidence of his Sidney Bechet Killed a Man, quite as sure as it might be. It’s an exercise in form as much as anything else, employing many of the same dramatic devices as Jump/Cut—flashbacks, direct address, the gradual filling-in of puzzle pieces that make two very different pictures of similarly staged opening and closing tableaux—but employing them to no discernible end, and with a wink-nudge air that shades quickly into grating obviousness.

At the show’s center, the capable Paul Morella is world-famous heart surgeon Philip Litwin, who keeps telling us what a genius he is, how devoted he is to excellence, and how much his medical art resembles the improvisational intricacies of the titular jazz giant. As the show goes on, we learn (from his brittle wife, played by a perfectly plastic Kimberly Schraf, and from his put-upon lawyer and friend, played by a perfectly oily Lawrence Redmond) that Philip’s not quite as solid or saintly as he might want to appear, and that—whoops—he’s suddenly bankrupt despite an income dwarfing that of many small nations. A long-dead homeless man weighs in, too—which is when it becomes clear that Flack is less afraid of magic realism than he should be—and soon enough we hear of various personal and professional betrayals, which culminate in a murder (and a further development that, though it’s as pivotal in this play as in Jump/Cut, seems contrived and unearned here).

All well and good, except that Flack, who can’t be hoping audiences will identify with the good doctor, hasn’t provided anybody else even remotely sympathetic. (Well, maybe Philip’s grandson Jerry, played winsomely by 9-year-old Isaac MacDonald, but he’s more plot device than character.) Worse, the author—despite a tendency toward overwriting and metaphor inflation—hasn’t made much of a case for his central argument, which seems to be something along the lines of “Talented people live close to the edge.” Or “Wildly gifted individuals sometimes lose the plot.” Or—who knows?—”Rich people have problems just like jazz players.” Whatever the point is, it’s obscured by a great lot of half-baked philosophy and tin-eared monologue. CP