By Scott Harrah
This British import definitely tries to evoke a reaction from its audience, and gets it. Intentionally vulgar and vile, and containing some of the most lurid scenes and profane dialogue the New York theater world has seen in some time, it’s the type of offbeat play that could only be produced in an off-off Broadway venue such as Soho’s Ohio Theater.
Like last winter’s “A Spanish Play,” a drama by Yazmina Reza starring the great Zoe Caldwell, “Bad Jazz” primarily focuses on the blurred lines between theater and reality amongst neurotic actors and a director.
Veteran off-Broadway actress Marin Ireland (recently seen in the Boston previews for the current Broadway thriller “Mauritius”) brilliantly plays Natasha, a high-strung actress who’s rehearsing for an outré play in which she portrays a prostitute falling in love with a heroin addict, Danny (Ryan O’Nan), and has to practice fellatio on him just one of the show’s many shock factors, which include vomiting, simulated sex of every type, and other disgusting things that cannot be described in a family newspaper.
Natasha’s boyfriend Ben (Darren Goldstein) is not at all pleased that his girl will be having real-life sex with another man all in the name of experimental theater. Ben locks proverbial horns with the play-within-a-play’s pretentious director Gavin (Rob Campbell), a man who is anxious to leave the stuffy British theater world and nurture a group of hand-picked actors. In one of the show’s only truly funny moments, Gavin picks up Ewan (Colby Chambers), a handsome but totally insane male prostitute, and forces him to do unsavory sex acts while the hustler, an aspiring playwright, belts out “Any Dream Will Do” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Some of this is mildly funny if one likes over-the-top camp and judging from the laughter in the audience, about half did. For the other half who sat stone-faced throughout, most of “Bad Jazz” is pointless and juvenile, and a few audience members walked out less than 30 minutes in. It’s possible that the people who stormed out in disgust were “plants,” because the actors broke out of character, turned their heads, and watched them leave. Regardless, after this nearly two-hour one-act play, I was so confused and bored that I simply didn’t care what was real and what was not. I just wished there were an intermission, so I could walk out without drawing attention to myself.
Just two years ago, Trip Cullman directed the black comedy “Dog Sees God,” a farcical exploration of what happened to Charlie Brown and the gang after Snoopy died. The show was a far superior dark farce with a much better story, so “Bad Jazz” seems an odd choice for Cullman. However, he does his best with Robert Farquhar’s scatterbrained script, and lighting designer Ben Stanton makes maximum use of the sparse set and the cavernous yet intimate Ohio Theatre, with actors performing almost in hand’s reach of the audience. Cullman also does a fine job of getting some outstanding performances from the cast. Marin Ireland, Ryan O’Nan, Rob Campbell, and Colby Chambers are equally noteworthy, all giving depth to their deeply troubled characters. Susan Pourfar is also good in her dual roles as playwright Hannah and theater administrator Danielle. It’s a shame the cast’s talents are wasted on such dreadful material.