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I Just Stopped By to See the Man

The blues is the lone American musical form with a mythology. Granted, it's a limited one that involves the devil, a crossroads, and a musician surrendering his soul for the ability to play the music. Geffen deserves a pat on the back for staging an all-too-rare theatrical look at the blues, even if it does plant itself at the well-worn crossroads.

The blues is the lone American musical form with a mythology. Granted, it’s a limited one that involves the devil, a crossroads, and a musician surrendering his soul for the ability to play the music. The myth is mocked early in Stephen Jeffreys’ “I Just Stopped By to See the Man” as something “the white folk eat up,” though eventually the truth about the trio in “Man” rests on a belief in that myth. Jeffreys’ storytelling may be a bit too subtle for the folk to eat up, but the Geffen deserves a pat on the back for staging an all-too-rare theatrical look at the blues, even if it does plant itself at the well-worn crossroads.

The center of “Man” is Jesse (Clarence Williams III), a legendary blues musician long thought dead, whose decisions will apparently determine the fates of his daughter Della (JoNell Kennedy) and English rock superstar Karl (Donovan Leitch). Jesse’s options are superficially simple — live out his days in his country shack, perhaps with a little less anonymity due to a recent public appearance, or venture back into the music world. Implications go deeper, though.

Since his alleged death 11 or 12 years earlier in a car accident that killed his wife, he has lived quietly about 60 miles down the road from the area where he was raised. He ventures out only to attend church meetings; the only thing he reads is the Bible. As “The Man” opens, Jesse is a rusty socializer, content to sit in his easy chair repeating the chorus of a hymn. John Arnone’s evocative set indicates he owns little beyond an old Martin guitar on the mantle and the hat he wore when he performed.

Scribe Jeffreys did credible research in creating the character of Jesse and placing him in the blues pantheon, mixing in names of real-life blues giants (Jesse was a young caregiver for Blind Lemon Jefferson, an associate of Robert Johnson, a musician who wouldn’t play entertainer like Big Bill Broonzy or accede to folkie revivalist demands a la John Hurt and Skip James). While many plays use a non-ordinary occupation to explore a theme — “Proof,” for example, which is more about family than mathematicians — “I Just Stopped By to See the Man” is at its best when it’s about the blues.

With all the characters, the playwright leaks a little bit of information at a time. Some lines — Della referencing Nabokov for example — sound awkward when first spoken; later, we’re told (but are not necessarily convinced) that she hangs with intellectuals.

Della’s character unfolds the slowest. She’s part of a radical movement (this is the early 1970s, mind you) and on the lam, having lent a pistol to a man to kill a white judge. Her goal is the preservation of Jesse’s anonymity, ensuring that his home remains a safe haven for her.

Rock star Karl, who breaks in after making three trips to the area in search of Jesse, has anointed him and his music as a personal savior — Jesse’s “Shotgun Blues” from the 1930s has made Karl and his bandmates rich. A collaboration with Jesse, whose dossier Karl can recite at length, would bring Karl closer to the purity of the music and distance himself from the drug-dependent lifestyle of a rocker.

Williams’ bear-like Jesse lumbers about the stage at times, growling songs and displaying curiosity with quickness and instinct. Only in Williams’ final expression during the closing moments of the play, when he has made his choice between devil, god and music, is there a lack of clarity. Is he crying or laughing? Is there resignation in his actions? There’s a vagueness that makes the ending fodder for post-theater conversation.

When “Man” opens, it’s possible we’re watching Karl at a metaphysical crossroads, confronting his dead idol. By the end, the table has been definitely turned, and there’s a new question to ponder: How many times has Jesse been in the company of the devil — once, twice or never? No matter which answer a viewer chooses, there’s sufficient evidence to back it up.

In Jeffrey’s three-character piece, each person knowing volumes about one other character, but draws a blank about the other. Jesse and Della, of course, have the link of blood, and it’s Della’s knowledge of her father’s limited routine that brings her to the woods where she works as a waitress in a diner.

Her character is the least convincing in the trio. There’s a lot being asked here: She enters the stage outraged by customers’ demands, and her disgust with certain white patrons has a definite logic and ring of truth. But come the second act, it becomes clear that fear is her motivation, and it actually has been for the entire play. She doesn’t connect with the others in the room and by having Kennedy plays Della cocksure one moment, panicked the next, there’s never a clear sense of her value to the proceedings.

As Karl, an Eric Clapton-like figure championing forgotten blues musicians, Leitch trembles when he first encounters Jesse and never becomes completely comfortable in his presence. Awe is transformed into a sense of opportunity, and there’s a degree of desperation in Jeffrey’s words that Leitch never explores. He gets what he wants when Jesse agrees to attend a concert with Karl’s unnamed band; the transformation, however, is all expressed through the elder statesman. The play and the direction demand nuance, and Leitch, son of ’60s folk-rock star Donovan, sticks with a look of bewilderment for too many scenes.

Helmer Randall Arney keeps the action rather static, rarely moving anyone with much force or verve. Oddly enough, it’s a logical choice — none of these people, self-doubters to begin with, is comfortable with the others — but it forces the words to work overtime to convey action. Even when Jesse’s enthusiasm overwhelms him, the palpability of his joy is all seen in his face.

Filmed footage shown on an enormous screen that covers the stage moves the action to concerts attended by more than 50,000 young rock ‘n’ roll fans. Even though the footage is a bit forced, the overall effect is natural.

I Just Stopped By to See the Man

Geffen Playhouse; 498 seats; $39 top

  • Production: A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts written by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Randall Arney. Set, John Arnone; costumes, Christina Haatainen Jones; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; sound, Richard Woodbury; video producer, Myrl Schreibman; production stage manager, Elsbeth M. Collins. Running time: <B>2 HOURS, 30 MIN.</B> Opened and reviewed Sept. 17, 2003; closes Oct. 19.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Della - JoNell Kennedy Karl - Donovan Leitch Jesse - Clarence Williams III
  • Music By: