Sidney Bechet Killed a Man

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With:
Cast: Tony Roberts (Dr. Philip Litwin), Hal Landon Jr. (Marcel), Barbara Tarbuck (Emily), Mirron E. Willis (Man/Pilot), Gail Shapiro (Isabelle/Nurse).

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In Dr. Philip Litwin (Tony Roberts), playwright Stuart Flack has created a memorably erudite personality whose unrelenting egocentricity eventually leads to self destruction. But Litwin’s lofty self image is so far removed from the rest of civilization that nothing in his eventual downward spiral transcends the stage. Despite the innovative direction of Juliette Carrillo, a commanding performance by Roberts and an outstanding supporting ensemble, Flack fails to prove what can be learned from this man’s life and why we should spend any time in his company.

A brilliant, multimillionaire cardiac surgeon, Litwin likens his success and status to two profound influences: the immortal jazz musician Sidney Bechet ( 1897-1959) and the monumentally goal-oriented Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

An accomplished amateur jazz clarinetist himself, Litwin sees his own skill as a surgeon as parallel to Bechet’s singular ability to incorporate all the chordal influences surrounding a piece of music into a continuingmelodic throughline of perfect improvisational creation. Also, the good doctor sees in himself Ahab’s ability to marshal all his cognitive skills into a laser-like beam of energy that can solve any problem and reach any goal.

Yet, this supremely gifted individual, who has inexplicably been conducting a senseless 20-year affair with the wife of his best friend, lawyer and financial consultant, Marcel (Hal Landon Jr.), is absolutely helpless to alter the tragic series of events that occur when Marcel vengefully orchestrates Litwin’s financial ruin.

What Flack leaves us with is an inept, over-inflated soul whose lack of emotional stability leads him into a murderous rage, and whose basic cowardice renders him unable to face the consequences. The playwright hasn’t given the audience enough to work with.

Roberts offers a dynamic, believable presence as this walking ego who can fluidly explain every nuance of his own brilliance and superiority. It is to Roberts’ credit that even as Dr. Litwin is viewing and accepting his own downfall, he can never allow himself to diminish his staunchly acquired facade of invincibility.

In contrast to Roberts’ Litwin, Landon Jr. is refreshingly human and vulnerable as the lifelong friend who wears the emotional scars inflicted by Litwin. It is a pleasure to witness Marcel’s barely repressed vindication and triumph as he calmly explains the essence of being patient and waiting for exactly the right moment to inflict one’s vengeance.

Complementing this male dynamic are Barbara Tarbuck and Gail Shapiro as Litwin’s wife, Emily, and daughter, Isabelle, respectively. Tarbuck exhibits a marvelous emotional range, offering a wryly sophisticated soliloquy on the nature of doctor’s wives, then being reduced to nerve-rending despair and hopelessness when she realizes her husband is continuing his infidelity.

Shapiro is perfect as the keenly observant married daughter who is quite aware of her father’s fallibility. She also doubles a Litwin’s down-to-earth nurse, who is amusingly matter-of-fact about the doctor.

Also lending solid support is Mirron E. Willis in a number of roles, especially the joyously irreverent reincarnation of Dr. Litwin’s medical school cadaver come to life. And young Gabe Wolpa exhibits a laudatory sense of theatrical timing and grasp of character as Litwin’s six-year-old grandson Jerry.

The sleek but stark set and lighting designs of Rachel Hauck and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz inhibit more than enhance the scenic flow. But Mitchell Greenhill’s subtle use of the music of the recorded works of Sidney Bechet does much to enhance the mood of the production, especially Bechet’s legendary outing on “Summertime.”

Sidney Bechet Killed a Man

(South Coast Repertory Second Stage;161 seats; $ 41 top)

Production: South Coast Repertory presents a play in one act by Stuart Flack, directed by Juliette Carrillo. Producers, David Emmes, Martin Benson.

Creative: Scenic design, Rachel Hauck; lighting design, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; costume design, Joyce Kim Lee; sound design, Mitchell Greenhill. Opened Oct. 31, 1997; reviewed Nov. 2; runs until Nov. 30. Running time: 80 min.

Cast: Cast: Tony Roberts (Dr. Philip Litwin), Hal Landon Jr. (Marcel), Barbara Tarbuck (Emily), Mirron E. Willis (Man/Pilot), Gail Shapiro (Isabelle/Nurse).Scenic design, Rachel Hauck; lighting design, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; costume design, Joyce Kim Lee; sound design, Mitchell Greenhill. Opened Oct. 31, 1997; reviewed Nov. 2; runs until Nov. 30. Running time: 80 min.

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