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Between the music and talk, a hollow ring

September 19, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Idea for a blues song: "Oh, the men they talk on and on, / Two 'n' a half hours done come and gone. / Oh, the men, they keep talkin' / Now my backside's a' squawkin' / Whoa-woe."

If the sound of people shifting uncomfortably in their seats is any indication, a number of variations on this tune were being written at the Geffen Playhouse's Wednesday opening of the blues-themed "I Just Stopped By to See the Man."

Stephen Jeffreys' play unfolds in 1975 in a shabby shack in the Mississippi Delta near Memphis. That is where a groundbreaking blues guitarist, long thought dead, has retreated from the world. Now closely associated with his local church, he has given up the blues as the devil's music. Then a British rocker comes looking for him. Long inspired by the older man's music, the rocker extends an offer that might well involve a Faustian selling of the soul.

The play was introduced in 2000 at London's Royal Court Theatre, where Jeffreys was literary associate, helping to usher scripts to the stage. Last year, Geffen artistic director Randall Arney directed the play at his Chicago alma mater, the Steppenwolf.

The British fascination with American music has written itself into a prominent chapter in rock history. So it's easy to understand why a British writer -- reportedly fascinated by the blues himself -- would broach the topic in a play. In the right hands, such material might develop into a hot new riff, a theatrical equivalent of bands such as the Rolling Stones shaping the blues into their own bold sounds.

But "I Just Stopped By" lacks the least spark of authenticity. Even a captivating actor like Clarence Williams III can't believably spit out the hollow words crammed into his blues musician character's mouth. Dialogue that should sing comes out as a strangled croak.

In moments when theatergoers' body parts aren't complaining, certain aspects of the Geffen staging can be admired. John Arnone's scenic design blasts open the corrugated metal roof of the blues musician's shack to offer a peaceful view of treetops and twinkling stars beyond. That quietude is nicely contrasted against the noisy world of the rocker's stadium concerts, depicted in segments projected onto a screen dropped in front of the set.

"Quiet" also describes Arney's direction, which finds delicate drama and humor in the characters' interactions.

In his first stage role in more than 20 years, Williams -- a late 1960s, early '70s pop culture icon as Linc on TV's "The Mod Squad" -- reveals whole pages' worth of subtext in his expressive face. It's difficult to keep from smiling along as his blues musician shares a conspiratorial laugh with JoNell Kennedy, who plays the musician's adult daughter, after the old man tests the rocker's susceptibility to tall tales about the birth of the blues.

Perhaps because of the way his part is written, Donovan Leitch can't quite hold up his end of the bargain as the rocker. He's suitably earnest and unthreatening, which he needs to be if audiences are to believe that the blues musician and his daughter would so readily share their secrets with him. But the sometime actor and musician (and son of Scottish folkie Donovan) conveys precious little rock-star swagger, much less any sense of urgency.

Jeffreys toys with themes of visibility, heritage, genuineness and transformation. He also wants to make a statement about those who turn something pure into a commodity. When the rocker tells the blues man that a return to the public eye would make him "one hot property," you know the old guy should ignore the temptation.

But by then, theatergoers' complaining posteriors are drowning out the interminable dialogue.


'I Just Stopped By to See the Man'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Oct. 19

Price: $28-$46

Contact: (310) 208-5454

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Clarence Williams III...Jesse

Donovan Leitch...Karl

JoNell Kennedy...Della

Presented by Geffen Playhouse. Written by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Randall Arney. Scenery John Arnone. Costumes Christina Haatainen Jones. Lights Daniel Ionazzi. Sound Richard Woodbury. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.

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