Solo shows, biographical or not, need passing grades in several departments to achieve success (or, at least, general approval). It goes without saying that the quality of the star performance is critical. The actor or actress in charge needn't be a Mark Rylance or a Julie Harris, but they need to make us believe and care in the central character. The writing -- and staging -- must dodge the built-in obstacles of the form, namely that you have only one actor up there talking for the duration. (The two plays under discussion, which opened on this past Sunday and Tuesday, are on the short side, running sixty minutes and eighty minutes respectively.)
Most important, perhaps, is the interest level in the character being portrayed. This can be a real person--celebrities are especially attractive to writers of one-person shows, as the audience walks in with familiarity and often affection -- or a fictional character with whom the playwright is determined to make some pertinent, poignant or universal point. The last element -- and one which the playwright/actor/director cannot control -- is the living-and-breathing one, i.e. the audience. If the combined elements grab the audience and make them care, you are golden. The aforementioned Ms. Harris did, in 1976, with Emily Dickinson; Bobby Morse did, similarly, in 1989 with Truman Capote. We have a similarly perfect example onstage right now -- through March 16 -- with Michael Urie's creation of a fictional out-of-work-actor in Buyer and Cellar. Last year's other specimens included noble experiments (like Fiona Shaw's Testament of Mary) and popular-but-predictable affairs (like Bette Midler's I'll Eat You Last).
This week's two offerings fit somewhere in between. First came the new Polly Pen musical, Arlington (at the Vineyard). This is indeed a musical, although much of it is dialogue sung to music in a not-especially-convincing vein. Pen and lyricist/librettist Victor Lodato eventually give Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber) actual songs to sing, but one wonders whether her dialogue has been set to music only because someone determined that it is more artistic that way. ("It's a sunny day, I'm not a rain person I'm a sun person"... "Mother is coming to lunch, she won't like the daisies"... "Maybe I was a caterpillar once, in a past life or something." And on and on.) Given that this is a musical, this one-person show also features a piano player (Ben Moss), who occasionally sings along. The most arresting passages, as it happens, are wordless duels between Moss -- visible at a piano behind the scrim -- and Silber at an onstage spinet.
Sara Jane is a bland, not-very-interesting person; she is boring, she tells us and the authors tell us, and that is not exactly helpful. As the hour progresses we learn that she is an Army wife, from an Army family; midway through she discusses the time her father took her to the Arlington National Cemetery, which foreshadows what is to come. She has a boring but controlling husband, who is off in the Middle East, and it is not long before she is drinking -- wine first, then bourbon -- and singing about military atrocities and television footage of screaming women and children, their corpses burning in the street. (This takes place today in the Middle East, we are told, but to this viewer it sounded more like Vietnam and My Lai.) And then it's over.
Alexandra Silber -- you'll remember her from the Tyne Daly Master Class, and if you're lucky from last summer's She Loves Me opposite Santino Fontana at the Caramoor Festival -- does very well with the role, singing up a storm and slipping in flashes of a winning and comic personality. But the performance is the most successful part of the evening. People who enjoy sung-through chatter interspersed with fragments of song building to ominous import are likely to find the evening rewarding. As Arlington rolled on, though, I was increasingly content that they had informed us going in that the performance would last but an hour.
Things work out more entertainingly over at the Westside Theatre, where Satchmo at the Waldorf has taken over the space last occupied by the middling solo show Becoming Dr. Ruth. This production, which Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout adapted from his book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, has been seen in New Haven, Philadelphia and Massachusetts. Perhaps as a result, the star performance of John Douglas Thompson has been shaped and honed and polished to an impressive level.
Thompson -- who received considerable acclaim in the title role of the Irish Repertory Theatre's 2009 production of The Emperor Jones -- starred on Broadway in October in A Time to Kill. That play's quick demise made this engagement possible. Thompson doesn't look anything like the fireplug-shaped Armstrong, nor does he have that famous gravel-voice. He is not called upon to do an Armstrong impersonation or play the trumpet, or sing more than a few notes here and there. He captures the essence of Armstrong, though -- or at least, the essence of Armstrong-as-drawn-by-Teachout. This Satchmo is the tortured being behind the ebullient public image; the performer and the writer make a convincing case for their viewpoint. Lovable Louis repeatedly calls the song "Hello, Dolly!," his 1964 recording of which pushed The Beatles out of the #1 slot on the charts, a piece of -- well, I don't suppose the author of "Hello, Dolly!" would be pleased.
This one-man play is really a three-hander, with Thompson's Satchmo pitted against manager/underworld figure Joe Glaser. Jazzman Miles Davis also makes several appearances, countering Armstrong as a more modern jazz trumpeter who refuses to serve as troubadour to white audiences. If Thompson is too young and robust to realistically portray the ailing Armstrong three months before his death in 1971, his impersonations of Davis and especially the rapid-talking Jewish manager make this performance satisfying enough to carry the show.
Director Gordon Edelstein keeps things moving handily, although he is forced by one-man-show strictures to resort to such activities as having the star change his clothes in several installments. And yes, there is an inevitability to the events from the first moment when the gasping Armstrong staggers into his Waldorf-Astoria dressing room, sinks into the couch, and desperately reaches for the oxygen tank. But Mr. Thompson and the overall examination of Satchmo's conflicts make for an illuminating and likable entertainment.