Playwright: Warren Leight. At: American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; www.americanbluestheater.com; $29-$39. Runs through: May 24
Once upon a time, there was a musician who loved music more than anything in the world, and a woman, who also loved the music, and the man who made it, as well. Along with their likewise muse-worshipping companions, they lived happy and contenteduntil the music began to die out, compelling them to adopt "adult" responsibilities, as defined by mainstream society. Like any endangered species, some adapted, and some didn't.
The time was 1953, and the "scene" ( as in "on the scene"jazzman slang for "here and now" ) was New York City's Upper West Side and Greenwich Village districts. Gene is a "side man" trumpetera freelance instrumentalist hired by an established band for a night, week or however long his skills are needed. His motto, and that of his palsdruggie Jonesy, skirt-chasing Al, lisping Ziggy and freewheeling bedmate Patsyis "Keep your nut ( expenses ) small, pay your ( union ) dues and, as long as you got a place to play and to flop, the rest is gravy." Terry, on the other hand, is a classically trained Boston-Italian flautist whose Catholic upbringing spurs her to assume housewifely duties. Soon Gene's lengthy working hours on the road clash with Terry's need for company, driving the former further into passive insularity and the latter into hostile alcoholism. The birth of a child only escalates the conflict.
"That guy," announces the clairvoyant Jonesy, upon seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, "is going to do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton." Warren Leight's microcosmic account of the economic and domestic upheaval engendered by the waning popularity of Big Band jazz is based in observations drawn from his own family experiences, but unlike many playwrights nowadays, Leight waited until his anger subsided, and with it any remaining traces of filial rancor, before setting down his elegy.
This brand of romanticized passing-of-an-age drama is American Blues Theater's specialty, but director Jonathan Berry and his savvy ensemble-tight cast refuse to wallow in nostalgic sentimentality, instead conveying both the joy and pain inherent in their characters' frivolously chosen lifestylesthe collective ecstasy at listening to a bootleg tape of their hero's final performance, a trombone player's terror at the prospect of dental injuries impairing his embouchure, or the frustration of a young son forced to parent his own hopelessly immature sire and dam. Despite its brief two-hour running time, the results invoke the grandeur of an epic chronicle distilled to an intimacy as sweetly bitter as the ancestral myths of far less humble mortals.