by Hazen Cuyler
The setting is a dilapidated Manhattan loft in the 1950’s and 60’s juxtaposed with the same location in the present day. In the present it’s cold, abandoned and isolating. In the 50’s/60’s, the loft is buzzing with deranged, drunken, drugged up brilliant artists sacrificing career and family to live here and create. (A)loft Modulation is written by Jaymes Jorsling and directed with meticulous care by Christopher McElroen, produced by The American Vicarious and playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres through October 26th. You should try not to miss this unique theatre experience.
Eugene Smith was a world-renown war photographer. Here, he’s named Myth Williams. In 1955, he left his wife, children, and job at Life Magazine, moved to a broken down loft in a shady Manhattan neighborhood and pursued greater artistic freedom. Over the next ten years, he captured 40,000 pictures and recorded 4,500 hours of audiotape containing environmental sounds, uncensored conversations and impossible to ignore live music. Hall Overton was a jazz professor at Julliard. His name is changed to Way Tonniver. Way holds legendary jam sessions at an adjacent loft with some of history’s best. Steve, our guide in the present, discovers Myth’s recordings and is determined to listen to them all.
At first glance we see a community which appears stable. Resembling an inspiring, art-filled, post-college bachelor life where everyone seems mostly happy and well adjusted. We fool ourselves thinking it can last forever. The more Myth distances himself from significant social institutions- his job and family- the more his world becomes consumed by drinking, drug habits and frayed relationships. Drug and alcohol abuse runs rampant at this loft. The brilliant Reggie Sweets, a young, drug-shattered-stage-frightened drummer, scribbles the word “distraction” on the wall after a Beckett-esque epiphany on how life is only a series of distractions as we wait for Godot… I mean death.
The Loft Band provides the heartbeat of this capricious, desperate world; jiving through slow drudging despair up into the sky highs of joyful inspiration. Troy Hourie’s impressive wooden loft skeleton set radiates hand-built charm and comfortably houses two or three or four scenes at once. Adam J. Thompson’s video design places cameras throughout the loft, projecting lo-fi close ups and unedited peeping tom angles like fragments of early era Casavetes films.
P.J. Sosko as Myth and Eric T. Miller as Way succeed in providing necessary anchor points to the story. Elisha Lawson’s portrayal of the tragic artist Reggie Sweets is at one moment haunting and at the next uplifting.
Playwright Jaymes Jorsling has intertwined past and present in compelling fashion. Tapes are unlabeled, so Steve sometimes doesn’t know what happens chronologically. We’ll witness someone in a state of desperation and suddenly the tape will run out. Needing to see what happens to next, he’ll play a new tape only to discover a different period from their life, one filled with joy and satisfaction. This jarring structure from Mr. Jorsling makes the experience even more devastating.
Christopher McElroen’s direction is detailed and forms one of the most accomplished productions I’ve reviewed. Mr. McElroen’s orchestration is perhaps the most impressive when communicating multiple timelines concurrently. A police officer (Buzz Roddy), investigating the present day loft, records the scene with an iPhone and a flashlight. The video is streamed and projected on walls. At the same time, the 50’s and 60’s come alive. Drugs, prostitutes, a photographer rushing up and down stairs documenting madness. Two cameras from two timelines in one space. Unaware of each other. Like blind ghosts. A second example occurs near the play’s conclusion when we witness a character who is simultaneously celebrated in one timeline and mourned in another. The fading memory of this once-happy home.
In the present timeline, there is desperation to Steve’s obsessive efforts because we discover the loft is scheduled to be demolished. Determined to sift through these time-forgotten documents, he gives up his job and nearly loses his family. This battle between distraction and institution tears at the fabric of every character. Distilling motivations down to distraction is devastating when you watch lives destroyed under the constant fluctuation between impulse and structure, passion and lethargy. This frenzied community and that loft- that bold and jazzy institution- could never have survived and perhaps were only meant to be remembered. An emotional catalogue from the tortured artists of our New York beat generation, documenting our most capricious pursuits of ultimate creative freedom. Pursuits of perfection resulting in some of the best art our country has ever created.
(A)loft Modulation runs through October 27th at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). 180 minutes, with one intermission. www.theamericanvicarious.org