Aeschylus introduced the second actor to Greek plays, adding dialogue, conflict, action — in other words, drama — to what had been a primarily lyrical art form. It seems like a no-brainer, this innovation; yet the one-person show, generally featuring a famous person in decline reminiscing about his or her successes and struggles, remains a staple of the theater all these years later.
Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” now at the Wallis Annenberg Center starring the remarkable John Douglas Thompson as jazz legend Louis Armstrong, is the latest fictionalized celebrity confession to arrive on L.A. stages. Like its predecessors, “End of the Rainbow” (about Judy Garland), “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” (about Paul Robeson), and “I’ll Eat You Last” (about the agent Sue Mengers), “Satchmo” derives its momentum from the promise of intimate revelations about a fascinating public figure. But this engine can carry it only so far.
Teachout is the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, so naturally the theatrical community is paying avid attention to his first venture across the footlights. He started the play after writing the biography “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Listening to the audio journals recorded by Armstrong, Teachout recalls in the program, introduced him to the private side of the affable, beaming performer: an Armstrong who “swore like a trooper and knew how to hold a grudge.”
The story is set in 1971, a few months before Armstrong’s death, at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Having played what will turn out to be his last show, the 70-ish Armstrong staggers into his dressing room (a plush, well-appointed set by Lee Savage) and heads straight for his oxygen tank. Once restored, addressing the audience as if unsurprised to see them there, he begins to tell his story.
Thompson makes an affecting Armstrong, or “Satchmo” as he liked to be called (Teachout doesn’t tell us so, but the nickname was short for “Satchelmouth”). Thompson’s meticulous and passionate characterization, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, isn’t an exact impersonation but somehow conveys the essence of the famous musician’s enormous smile and tuneful, gravelly voice. If the setup is overfamiliar and stagy — we watch Armstrong change clothes, like Mr. Rogers, over the course of about 90 minutes, and can’t help noticing that his arms are really muscular for a 70-year-old’s — his reminscences are fun to hear, both because of his contributions to music and because he made them against such steep odds.
Embraced by white audiences, he was given access to places most black people couldn’t go. Blacks in turn accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” and turned against him. In the play Armstrong describes looking out into the audience and seeing only white faces, “like a carton of eggs.”
But Teachout is aware that a historical portrait, however interesting, does not make a drama. So he has taken a cue from Aeschylus and added a second character, if not a second actor: Thompson also plays Armstrong’s Jewish, mob-connected agent, Joe Glaser, with whom he had a rich and complicated 40-year relationship. Glaser was dead by 1971, so his appearances on the stage are a bit mysterious. He takes over Satchmo’s body periodically to tell his side of the story, but Satchmo, unfortunately, doesn’t get to hear it.
When Thompson becomes Glaser, the lights change, and he stands up straighter and speaks faster, in a tough-guy accent reminiscent of James Cagney’s. He talks about doing business “with a pistol stuck up the other guy’s nose—the Chicago Way.” But for all his volatility, the portrait is not a negative one; in fact Teachout’s purpose seems to be to redeem Glaser from accusations of exploiting or otherwise mistreating Armstrong.
As a character, Glaser is less fully rendered than Armstrong—and also, all of his scenes are flashbacks—so this story line, rather than supplying conflict, feels distracting. Thompson also plays a third character, Miles Davis, a haughty hipster who is almost a cartoon. Despite the dynamism of Thompson’s performances, these other voices are like the talking heads in a documentary, offering color, flavor and different perspectives but no real drama.
“Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 7. $30-$50. (310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org. Running time: 90 minutes.