Playwright: Warren Light. At: Ka-Tet Theatre Company at City Lit, Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Phone: 1-800-838-3006;$20. Runs through: Aug. 20
"Everything was happy before I was born!" laments young Clifford Glimmer, looking back on his parents' troubled marriagean assessment often true in the 1950s, but inaccurate, in this case. When your father's a jazz trumpeter from the Bronx named "Clean Gene", and your mother, a classical flutist from Boston's Italian ghetto whose own family calls her "Crazy Terry", your chances for a normal childhood are slim already. Add in the changing musical tastes of an American public that would soon abandon Big Band for rock 'n' roll and the malaise engendered by thwarted dreams becomes inevitable. Warren Light is no angry young man, however. The same open-form structure at the foundation of the music that shapes his play's universe also grants its people amnesty.
Jazz, you see, doesn't adhere to a written score, like classical music, but instead draws upon an aesthetic rooted in spontaneous improvisation reflecting the artist's emotions at that instant. Clifford's account of his parents' meeting and subsequent first date in New York City's Village district evidences this romantic lifestyle. Such a carpe-diem sensibility might have continued to sustain a marital dynamic constructed around out-of-town tours, trips to the unemployment office on 92nd Street (dubbed the "Club 92" by the musicians congregating thereat), and a home serving as a repository for the flotsam of similarly peripatetic comrades, but it's no way to raise a sonespecially after "addict-but-not-junkie" trombonist Jonesy introduces Terry to the taste of hard liquor.
Light's memoir is less an autobiography than a portrait of an era now lost to myth. His characters comprise a cross-section of the personalities defining it to future generationsnebbisher Ziggy, alley-catting Al, philosophical Jonesy, den-mother-with-benefits Patsyand his milieu, the now-legendary cabarets and bistros of lower Manhattan, where youthful pilgrims seized the day with all their might, only to evolve into old pilgrims, still seeking that single elusive high note transcending the squalor of commonplace responsibilities. Richard Stockton Rand directs this Ka-Tet Theatre production in City Lit's intimate space with a likewise gentle touch, eliciting performances of bittersweet poignancy from an ensemble of uniformly-excellent actors (bookended by Jeremy Clark's withdrawn Gene and Rich Logan's mercurial Jonesy), while Tracy Otwell's overlapping-collage scenery establishes just the right tone of delicate nostalgia.