All That Jazz

Now and then, fantasy and reality humorously collide in Pork Pie, a self-styled "mythic jazz fable" set in a period described only as The South: "When men wore hats, women had the power, and legends were alive." Beginning with a kindly narrator's tongue-in-cheek remarks, Michael Genet's world-premiere play, currently running at the Stage Theatre, uses whimsy and charm to trace a young piano player's quest to regain his creative muse -- and, if he's lucky, win the honor of sporting the white chapeau of the play's title.

Before our hero gets his chance to wear that symbolic crown, though, the audience must shoulder a meandering story that's too predictable for its own good. Taking a leisurely pace is one thing, but allowing the dramatic action to come to a standstill, as frequently happens here, is another: The mythic scenes don't quite transport the audience to hitherto unknown realms; the more realistic episodes offer few emotional revelations; and the famous American jazz clubs and musicians of yesteryear (legendary saxophonist Lester Young is the play's inspiration) receive scant attention at best. And despite some engaging performances and a five-piece band's virtuosity, the supposedly climactic conclusion, set in the Pork Pie Hat Club in Hell, is foregone well before the two-and-a-half-hour tale ends.

The intermittent achievements that endure, however, are intriguing -- and powerful -- enough to engender hope for a future, more streamlined production. In addition to supplying some inventive staging touches, director Israel Hicks elicits portrayals of considerable humanity and flair (much as he did a couple of seasons back for the DCTC's Kingdom, another not-yet-ready-for-prime-time play that was kept afloat, not always mercifully, by good performances and visual effects). Indeed, the performers maintain superb concentration, wresting admirable variety and depth from the dialogue without making too much of any one moment. They keep the play's essential conflicts burning even when there's not much fuel to work with, and they have little trouble convincing us that they reside in a world where natural desires and supernatural forces intersect as commonly as night does with day.

Veteran actor Roger Robinson inhabits the role of The Storyteller with sly, almost devilish grace. Whether he's describing the characters' travails with a blend of incredulity and compassion, punctuating the action with snappy one-liners or hefting a generously appointed dinner plate, Robinson naturally attracts the limelight without ever once giving the impression that he's hogging it. Ron Cephas Jones gets the play off to a healthy start with his solid rendering of Charlie, the ivory-tickler with a poet's gift and a wanderer's soul. As his long-suffering, Bible-toting wife, Mahaley, Kim Staunton is at once righteous and wounded, rising in fierce indignation only to bow to her husband's and, later, her son's wishes to answer a different sort of spiritual calling. As her son, Volcy, Bobby Day uses his silky singing voice to exquisite effect, and he also helps us to see that his character's stuttering, be it God-given or environmentally induced, is not an impediment so much as it is a necessary barrier -- one that forces Volcy to seek a more fulfilling form of expression. Alton Fitzgerald White is a commanding presence as The Champion, a roguish, demonic figure who, like the quintessential bad dream, derails Charlie's and Volcy's several pilgrimages with irresistible taunts and challenges. Vivian Reed stylishly impersonates The Devil's Wife; Ora Jones is right on the money as the busybody-ish Mabel; and Kimberly JaJuan is angelic as Maggie, the love interest whose flesh gets understandably weak.

The play is performed against a fanciful setting that consists of a country house, an open playing area, a well-trod hilltop and a magical, mystical barn (credit Vicki Smith with the design, which owes as much to Jacob Lawrence's sense of play as it does to Romare Bearden's color scheme). Fronted by a sunken row of cornstalks, the colorful environs seem the perfect place for Genet's story of love, art and spirituality to materialize. Unfortunately, the dialogue needs a major overhaul: One character gets ready for a musical challenge, or "cutting" contest, by saying, "I'm ready to whip it out," which causes another to reply, "It's so big," which then causes her companion to say, "I'll cut it down to size," one of several cheap exchanges that seem out of place in an otherwise poetic story. And the special effects often look more like fancy footwork than artful embellishment.

But while Pork Pie lands short of the intended mark, it's hard to blame the playwright for aiming high. After all, as one character observes, "Anything glorious is hard to achieve." By shooting for the stars, Genet and company encourage us to take another look at our present-day existence as well as our fractured past. The play's present incarnation obviously needs more work, but its glory days might not be far ahead.