Once again exploring the collateral damage in the lives of jazzmen, Warren Leight applies a lighter touch in “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine,” his first play since the award-winning “Side Man.” Less corrosive and more overtly funny than “Side Man,” the new play provides John Spencer, a star of TV’s “The West Wing,” with a crusty comic role that he clearly relishes. Audiences will duly relish him, too, although some may find the play’s emphasis on one-liners and formulaic plot developments a step backward from the richer, more dappled textures of “Side Man.”
Spencer plays Martin Glimmer, a former trumpet player who’s now shipwrecked in his sixth-floor walkup in Yorkville, padding around his dingy digs through a miasma of cigarette smoke. His only apparent family is Jordan Shine (Scott Cohen), a trombone player who’s the son of one of Glimmer’s former bandmates.
In the ’50s Martin and Jordan’s father formed a trio with Martin’s twin brother Danny — hence the play’s title — and the drama kicks off when Jordan strikes up a friendship with the niece Martin has never met: Delia (Seana Kofoed), daughter of Danny, from whom Martin has long been estranged.
She’s just as surprised to hear about her uncle. Delia’s flippy hairdo (she’s a Greenwich, Conn., girl, all pearls and sweaters) just about loses its bounce when she discovers that daddy, now the wealthy owner of a textile company, once played a trumpet and associated with nasty drug addicts.
The versatile Kofoed, a talented regular on MTC stages, can do little to enrich this character’s stereotyped attitudinizing; nevertheless, the plot dictates that Delia begin warming to the goofy but sexy Jordan. When the ailing Martin slips into a coma and is rushed to the hospital, she confronts her father, bringing about the predictable uneasy reunion between the two brothers.
Martin is an irresistible character, the wisecracking, cynical artist who has remained true to his art even as it deserted him. Occupying the high moral ground of his hospital bed, he sprays comical contempt at Daniel, the sellout. Leight’s affection for the character comes through lavishly in the jazzy anecdotal riffs and snarky wisecracks he writes for Martin.
Under Evan Yionoulis’ brisk direction, the rhythms are sometimes sitcom-ish, but the jokes are true to Martin’s peculiar worldview. “I don’t mind the needles,” he grumbles from his hospital bed. “Anytime anyone brings a syringe near me, I perk up.” Rasping out his dialogue through an authentic-sounding smoker’s hack, Spencer turns in a supremely appealing performance that gives full theatrical due to the character’s weary wisdom and poignant decrepitude.
Unfortunately, the sympathetic attention Leight bestows on Martin doesn’t extend to the rest of his characters, who are more thinly drawn. The characterization of Delia, as noted, is somewhat less authentic than her pearls. She’s often the subject of the author’s potshots, as when Daniel asks whether she’s still communicating with her absent fiance, and she answers, sans irony, “We fax twice a day!”
Although Kerwin is a deft and sensitive actor, Daniel doesn’t get much better treatment. When he and Martin eventually go mano-a-mano, his excuses for abandoning his art are feeble: “But I have done all right for myself, Martin … I’ve a home, a business, a family.” The hollowness of these blandishments, of course, has already been amply demonstrated.
In “Side Man,” Leight de-romanticized the life of a jazz man by explored the real emotional damage caused by his dedication to his music. Here we get mostly the romance, contrasted with the vacuousness of the alternative life: While Martin is a decrepit and bitter figure, he’s never less than adorable — far preferable to the empty shells of Martin and Delia.
There’s something schematic about Leight’s dramaturgy here; he’s dealing in half-truths, and the laugh lines cover up the pain he so corrosively brought to light in the prior play. “Never settle” are Martin’s last lingering words, but it’s hard not to conclude that Leight has settled himself, for a surefire piece of comic entertainment rather than a play of deeper and darker truth. If “Side Man” was a moody, meandering improvisational riff, “Glimmer” is an appealing but soon forgotten 32-bar standard.