David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" did not create the popularity of gender bending. It merely capitalized on it. The idea of a man passing successfully as a woman (or vice versa) is inherently mysterious. It titillates. No wonder playwrights are attracted to it.
The latest play to focus on the subject is a curious hybrid. Eduardo Machado's "Stevie Wants to Play the Blues," which opened Saturday at the Los Angeles TheatreCenter, is part soap opera and part jazz concert. It gives us drama (including the particular drama of hearing live music on stage), director Simon Callow and performers Amy Madigan and Paula Kelly. One could do worse.
But is it enough?
The plot, loosely inspired by the life of jazz pianist Billy Tipton, does not try to fool the audience. We know from the start that Stevie (Madigan) is a young woman who deliberately dons a man's clothing and haircut in the belief that only as a man could she be taken seriously as a jazz musician. What she doesn't anticipate is being taken seriously by the band's singer, a beautiful, lonely, heroin-addicted Ruth Scott (the striking Kelly in a swooning Billie Holiday role).
When Stevie first applies for the job with Harry's band, his/her appearance seems overly cultivated: three-piece suit and tie and a tentative manner. The voice is not particularly disguised or deepened to simulate that of a man (a good thing, since such simulation can become unintentionally risible). And there are certainly plenty of real men around with feminine attributes.
One can also understand Ruth's initial attraction to this post-pubescent boy. He's young, quiet, reserved and he reveres her. There's a determination about him that belies the frail exterior. And he's gentle, at least with her. That's an intoxicating recipe for a woman on the skids who's been shunted from one bully to the next and the color of whose skin finds her still segregated at mealtimes in certain sections of post World War II middle America. But it's also a recipe for disaster. Where can this go?
Despite sensitive efforts by Kelly and Madigan, the love that supposedly blossoms between them is unconvincing. Director Callow wisely maintains a dignity in the transactions between them, but the eventual explosive resolution of the relationship is sheer razzle-dazzle--at once a triumph of effect and a cheat, verified by an opening-night audience that inappropriately tittered.
The play's major hurdle is its lack of subtext. We can second-guess where it's headed pretty early on and nothing Machado inserts alters the destination. Since we're in on the gender bending, there's no surprise there either. If we are to derive more from the event than a story stylishly told in dramatic and musical riffs (including a powerful drum solo by Randy Kovitz), it's hard to tell what it might be.
Bravura theatrical context is what you get: the opening and closing of tall and short doors in Timian Alsaker's unit set, action illuminated by pools or long shafts of oppressive light (Douglas D. Smith), billowing clouds of dry ice and cigarette smoke and an elegant array of late '40s costumes (Alsaker).
But, again, is it enough? Not really. The engaging music by Fredric Myrow is sufficiently distracting to cover up the play's philosophical holes. Madigan's performance grows and grows. The cross-dressing takes some getting used to, but becomes increasingly believable as the character becomes more self-assured. Her final stand-up monologue in full tux and full maturity is a fitting ending for the show.
The boys in the band (Kovitz, Louie Spears as the bassist Al, and Michael Milhoan as leader and trumpet-player Harry) each offer distinct characterizations. Christie Houser, as Stevie's childhood friend Mary Ann, has some good moments as a talentless camp-follower who thinks she can sing. And George Buck's Ernest Roach is a slick if stereotypical record producer.
Kelly is somewhat limited in her self-pitying role as a failing chanteuse, but she has at least a couple of rousing numbers that allow her to display the fullness of her talents. Machado's play was commissioned by LATC under a Ford Foundation grant and exhibits some of the familiar scars of overprocessing. Namely, it feels overdesigned, more to impress than affect.
At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2, until April 8. Tickets: $22-$26; (213) 627-5599.
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