Satchmo at the Waldorf
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF by Terry Teachout
Off-Broadway at the Westside Theater, New York City
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
The one-person, or solo, show is a staple of the theater of today, an occurrence likely caused by the financial straits of the art form- already mentioned several times in these columns, and sure to be referred to again- which has greatly reduced the size of budgets, and casts. The practice of using a smaller and smaller amount of workers to perform the same size job, may be recognizable to many readers from their own places of employment. It has become an accepted, if reviled, part of the 21st century American economy.
The antique art form Theater was an innovative forerunner in this quest to eliminate paychecks. Hal Holbrook devised one of the earliest and most enduring one-man shows, his Mark Twain Tonight, originating in the 1950s and still being performed by the actor in the 2000s. Suffering setbacks since roughly the mid-1970s, theater began regularly turning out one-person shows, most star vehicles: Clarence Darrow, with Henry Fonda, was produced in 1974; The Belle Of Amherst, with Julie Harris, 1976. (To offer some perspective, You Can’t Take It With You, the Kaufman & Hart smash of 1936, had 19 characters.) Currently, New York has several entire festivals devoted to one-person shows, in which many of the works are more actor-auditions than actual plays. But through the years, artists from Eric Bogosian and Anna Devere Smith to Sarah Jones and Mike Daisey have made names and careers writing and performing inventive, finely crafted solo pieces. Recently, Buyer & Cellar, about a young man working in a mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement, has been acclaimed and popular in town. You have undoubtedly seen or heard of these one-man/woman productions at theaters near you.
While the proliferation of one-person plays is regrettable in many ways, reducing employment of actors, (and probably, since the production is simpler, cutting tech personnel) forcing scripts to become more contrived, and causing theatergoers to get less for their bucks, they can be enjoyable, even exhilarating evenings. That is, if the topic and performer are good. The latest effort in this genre, Satchmo At The Waldorf, has both a top-notch subject and actor. Playing on 43rd St. at the Off-Broadway Westside Theater, a block north of Theater Row, the once wacky-and-funky, now renovated-and-respectable group of Off and Off-Off theaters on 42nd St., far west. The story concerns the hugely popular trumpeter, singer and entertainer, Louis Armstrong, nearing 70 and ill, as he assesses his life backstage after a performance at the tony Waldorf Astoria hotel in 1971. Satchmo At The Waldorf is the first play by Terry Teachout, the longtime, respected theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, and directed by accomplished theater veteran Gordon Edelstein, the Artistic Director of The Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Ct, for the past twelve seasons.
The piece starts inauspiciously, as Armstrong, portrayed by John Douglas Thompson, stumbling out of breath into his dressing room, announces to the audience that, due to age, he “shit his pants” earlier in the elevator and had to change his clothes. But, from this crassly manipulative beginning, the work improves. It gradually becomes a depiction of the African-American Armstrong’s complicated relationship with his white-Jewish manager Joe Glaser, a man with Chicago underworld ties who protected, promoted and exploited the trumpeter for most of his career. Glaser encouraged the brilliant, virtually self-taught musician Armstrong to put on a simplistically positive and happy face and show, which gained him an enormous following among white audiences but a dwindling one among blacks, who grew to resent his non-threatening, traditional persona. Later, in the 1950s and 60s, as the culture became more open and rebellious, iconoclastic trumpeter Miles Davis considered Armstrong an “Uncle Tom.” Thompson plays Armstrong, Glaser and Davis, and the piece dramatizes the musician’s struggle with the concepts of art, authenticity, respect and race.
One-person plays have inherent difficulties in storytelling, as it has to be made believable why the person is alone, and since they are alone, why they are talking. Often, hokey if serviceable devices are used: the person is giving an interview, or press conference, or performance of some kind, or in the case of The Last Flapper, a 1987 play about Zelda Fitzgerald, the troubled writer and wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is undergoing hypnosis at a sanatorium (!) While these choices can seem forced, they are often necessary. In Satchmo, playwright Teachout has Armstrong directly address us, the theater audience, but never establishes a credible reason why he must speak. There is a hesitant stab at the character recording his thoughts for an autobiography, but this is not fully utilized. The pressing need that drives him to address us, lies dormant. Eventually, Louis just says that he and the audience are “hanging out,” and it’s left at that. This choice isn’t a crime, but it does rob the show of a certain focus and immediacy.
However flimsy the set-up, Teachout’s rendering of Armstrong’s life stories is compelling. The musician’s impoverished upbringing in the Storyville section of New Orleans in the early 20th century, his rise playing local clubs with black audiences throughout the south and his decision to hook up with Glaser in order to shield him from the Mob, which had been pressuring Armstrong to appear at certain venues, are haunting and evocative. Even more effective is the conflict Armstrong has with Miles Davis, who personifies how detached Armstrong has become from a younger, hipper crowd; the rejection that Armstrong feels, the growing hurt caused by his abandonment by black audiences; and his realization, after Glaser’s death, that the manager did not fully appreciate him, was not the friend the trusting Louis had thought him to be. These moments are touching and harshly, admirably, unremitting. Even though Armstrong’s heyday of the 1940s and ‘50s is mostly skipped, his mix of bitterness and triumph over the gig at the Waldorf, where he is the only black person in a well-heeled white crowd, makes for an excellent coda.
The nearly constant use of obscenities provides comedy and gives Armstrong a kind of edge he never had in his public life; the innocuousness of his performances being a running theme of the play. But after a time, the cursing just seems too easy, a facile substitute for eloquent theatrical language, however rough and colloquial. The period backstage set is beautifully designed by Lee Savage, but not used all that much. Director Edelstein doesn’t solve the story issues, but keeps the piece moving and keeps the movement natural. The production features Armstrong’s wonderful music only sparingly, perhaps to avoid paying for the rights, another casualty of the constricted finances of today’s theater.
Satchmo At The Waldorf finally functions as a salute to Louis Armstrong himself, once a nearly ubiquitous presence on stage, record, screen and later, TV, now fading in our memory. As a superlative, pioneering talent who was often undervalued, his life is intriguing and worthwhile subject matter. But the play really works best as a showcase for John Douglas Thompson, probably the greatest actor you’ve barely heard of. Thompson’s interpretation of the three characters is passionate, assured and powerful. Perhaps his relative lack of fame is due to the fact that, up till now, he has been mostly a stage, rather than a movie or TV, performer, and mostly an Off-Broadway and regional theater performer at that. (His Off-Broadway portrayal of Othello was much regarded and awarded in 2009, but, despite hopes that it would move uptown, never made it to Broadway.) Maybe Thompson is too good an actor to be hugely famous. His integrity, his immersion in the characters is complete; he lacks the tics and idiosyncrasies that make lesser talents bigger stars. So, it is here, that the one-man show has a definite benefit: it shines a light illuminatingly on a fine performer of another day, and solely and brightly, on a fine performer of our own.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. He has performed on Broadway and in many off-Broadway and regional productions. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He will serve as Visiting Playwright in July, 2014, at Heartland Theatre Company’s New Plays from the Heartland Midwest One-Act Play Competition.