Warren Leight's 1998 fictionalized memory play about his parents — an emotionally arid jazz trumpeter and an operatically unhappy waitress — is as wry and wrenching as the instrumental ballads that run through the story. But Ka-Tet Theatre Company's production, staged by Richard Stockton Rand, doesn't balance the wit and the agony well enough for all of Leight's tenderness and torment to register. Yet there are moments that clutch the heart as the slow-motion train wreck of a marriage runs off the rails of alcoholism, bipolar disorder and the hand-to-mouth difficulties of life as a "side man."
The play, set between 1953 and 1985, has a narrator and Leight stand-in, Clifford (Dan Meisner), who opens the show with a monologue about his parents that reveals the secret of their attraction to each other: "The rocks in her head fit the holes in his." Clifford is a visual artist; Tracy Otwell's set design cleverly incorporates Clifford's collaged streetscapes of 1950s Manhattan. He has come back to visit his now-divorced parents before moving to California, away from the role he has played most of his life as the mediator for parental battles. But as the story unfolds, it's clear that though Gene (Jeremy Clark) and Terry (Suzanne Miller) no longer live together, they'll never be untangled from each other, either.
Clifford is really narrating the demise of two different beasts: his parents' marriage and jazz in America, the latter besieged by the onset of rock 'n' roll and an art form seldom explored in pop culture. Gene, his son observes, "could sense everything when he was blowing and almost nothing when he wasn't." He travels with a pack of three fellow musicians: the smack-addicted Jonesy (Rich Logan, in a show-stealing performance), nerdy lateral-lisping Ziggy (Jeffrey Gitelle) and ladies' man Al (Scott Allen Luke), who becomes one of the many husbands of good-hearted brassy waitress Patsy (Kathryn Bartholomew).
When he's with the guys or on the bandstand, Gene comes alive. At home, especially once Terry's booze-compounded mental illness takes over, he wilts.
In fact, he's so passive that he doesn't even mind when another musician gets the credit in a review for the solos he recorded. Gene's passivity feeds Terry's rage, and Clifford is the one picking up the pieces. Clark does a decent job as a man who shuts down and freezes up when he doesn't have the shield of his instrument in front of him, but Miller's Terry goes from zero to crazy with few stops in between, lessening the sympathy we should feel for her.
Meisner has an endearing presence, but he doesn't successfully negotiate the shifts between narrating Clifford's story and being in the moments as they unfold. (One fine exception is a scene where he has to coax his suicidal mother off the fire escape.) There are also some splendid comic interludes with the boys in the band as they explain "jazzonomics" — the delicate balance between unemployment and money earned from (increasingly subpar) gigs. And there is one absolutely golden segment where the musicians listen rapturously to "Night in Tunisia" by Clifford Brown — the namesake of the narrator and a man who died tragically young. For those few transcendent minutes, one understands why all the economic privations and the messed-up relationships don't matter to these side men.
Through Aug. 20 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $20 at 800-838-3006 or katettheatre.org
Lisa Linke hosts this Sunday-night variety show, assuming the persona of a different high school teacher each week who welcomes improv and sketch artists from rival schools. On opening night, Linke was hilarious as "Mr. Wallace," an in-over-his-head PE teacher subbing for a physics class, chugging gin and complaining about how Title IX (the federal law mandating equal opportunities for women in college sports) had destroyed his dreams of a baseball career.
The rest of the evening was uneven, with Pat Dwyer and Erin Pallesen of the duo Kerpatty! delivering the most solid performances in a series of scenes that reflected male competitiveness — from an awkward father-son game of catch to a blissfully absurd interlude where Dwyer tried to draw a picture in the air with his hands of his allegedly hot new girlfriend's physique, with dumbfounding results. "Is she a mascot of some sort?" Pallesen asked as Dwyer created ever-more-improbable dimensions for her.
The evening could use more structured integration of the visiting troupes into the high school motif, but as a cheap and relaxed nightcap for an end-of-summer weekend, it's not a bad elective.
Through Sept. 4 at the Spot, 4437 N. Broadway; $5 at 773-728-8934 or spotchicago.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times