Michael Boatman and Michael Therriault
in The Tin Pan Alley Rag
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Boatman and Michael Therriault
in The Tin Pan Alley Rag
(© Joan Marcus)
Mark Saltzman's The Tin Pan Alley Rag, now receiving its New York premiere at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater, has what Hollywood might term a "high concept" premise: What if the two so-called Kings of Ragtime, Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin, had actually met during their lifetime? Well, if such a tete-a-tete did occur, let's hope it was more compelling than the one Saltzman has imagined for this occasionally entertaining if dramatically unfulfilling play.

The playwright's set-up, at least, is inspired: Joplin (Michael Boatman) arrives at the music publishing firm owned by Berlin (Michael Therriault) and partner Ted Snyder (a suitably gruff Michael McCormick) -- using a fake name -- and desperate to have the men publish his so-far-unappreciated opera Treemonisha. But once the young but savvy Berlin recognizes the true identity of the older African-American man sitting at the other piano, the fireworks begin.

Well, not exactly. Mostly, the two bicker -- often in dialogue reminiscent of imitation Neil Simon -- as well as share their music (a particular treat for Berlin lovers), and ultimately bond over their peculiar shared fate: Berlin's first wife, Dorothy (a charming if underused Jenny Fellner) died shortly after catching typhoid fever on the couple's honeymoon in Cuba, while Joplin's second wife, Freddie (the luminous Idara Victor, who steals the show) passes away just 10 weeks after her wedding from pneumonia.

Yet, as the pair alternately swap anecdotes -- somewhat awkwardly staged by Stafford Arima on the usually brilliant Beowulf Borrit's cramped set -- we still long to learn more about these men's not-so-parallel paths. It would be especially illuminating to discover more about how Joplin became so successful in a world where African-American men were barely tolerated in parts of white society.

Beyond presenting these mini-bios, Saltzman has a seemingly larger goal, as the mysteriously ill Joplin is actually on hand to inspire Berlin to move beyond his Tin Pin Alley successes into creating great art. Unfortunately, these conversations often have the unpleasant whiff of Obi-Wan Kenobi advising Luke Skywalker. And ending the show by counterpointing an off-stage medley of some of Berlin's more sophisticated tunes -- and tunes they are -- with a staged excerpt from Treemonisha (which was eventually performed in 1972 and led to Joplin receiving a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976) actually accentuates the composers' differences rather than their similarities. (One keeps thinking that if Joplin had perhaps inspired the Gershwins to write Porgy & Bess, this premise might have really worked!)

Fortunately, the piece does benefit from the efforts of its hard-working cast: Therriault is properly brash yet sweetly vulnerable as Berlin; the elegant Boatman mostly emphasizes Joplin's world-weariness and sagacity, and a talented ensemble -- with Rosena M. Hill, Derrick Cobey, and James Judy as its standouts -- fill in a variety of small roles adroitly.