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Seeing the Leight

Jazz as a metaphor for family dysfunction sparks Warren Leight's latest play, Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine logo
John Spencer, Seana Kofoed, and Scott Cohen
in Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Warren Leight is back with another jazzed-up memory play about a messed-up family, this time at Manhattan Theatre Club, where Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine opens tonight (May 24). It's the story of the Glimmer brothers, twin trumpet players Marty (John Spencer of TV's The West Wing) and Danny (Brian Kerwin), who comprised two thirds of a '50s horn combo so electrifying that they were said to have glowed in the dark.

The play caroms between those early, halcyon days and the present. Marty's now a broken down ex-junkie, very smart and twice as bitter, while Danny's a wealthy businessman with the requisite Connecticut airs. The brothers haven't spoken for over 30 years but, although Eddie Shine (the third member of the combo) is dead, his trumpet-playing son Jordan (Scott Cohen) regularly visits the reclusive Marty. When Jordan happens to meet Danny's daughter (played by Seana Kofoed) at a gig, the themes of family dysfunction, contrasting life styles, ill health, the love of jazz, and hospital bureucracy begin to collide. While this is defnitely an ensemble piece, Spencer and Cohen in particular live up to their character names as they glimmer and shine throughout the evening.

"There's a couple of things that writing about jazz does," explains Leight, a onetime Village Voice journalist ("I tended to embellish quotes, I always wanted to improve rather than report") turned playwright. "Writing about jazz gets you into dysfunctional families pretty quickly and into people who are just living their lives on a day to day basis. I find the upper-middle class is a bit over-represented in the theater and other classes are under-represented." When I point out that members of both classes are on hand in GG&S, Leight laughs and replies, "Well this way, you can compare and contrast. Besides, nobody comes out a winner in this play."

"In my writing, I really work hard on the rhythms and stuff," he continues. "But if you just play the rhythms, it doesn't work. And if you just play the emotions, it doesn't work. It's a pretty tricky thing for the actors; they have to have a good deal of technique in order to really be free emotionally. There's a weird overlap between jazz musicians and theater actors; both are underpaid and underappreciated. And good actors, like good jazz musicians, are completely in the moment. They play songs within the same structure every night, but there's a moment when you're going to crescendo, a moment when you take it down, or a moment when you let somebody else solo."

Side Man, Leight's Tony-winning, Pulitzer-nominated play, brought him fame (and lots of national and worldwide productions). Glowing reviews greeted the current Pasadena Playhouse staging, co-starring Mare Winningham (Terry), Dennis Christopher (Gene), and Ethan Phillips (Ziggy). Understandably, Side Man accounts for a hefty portion of Leight's 2,000 plus entries on the internet search engine Google. He's even got an entry under "Lesbian Nation," thanks to his continuing relationship with the downtown comedy troupe The High-Heeled Women; Leight began his creative writing career with them, earning $10 an hour in what he calls "my baptism by fire." (Their latest show together, Fame Takes a Holiday, recently played at La MaMa.)

Warren Leight
But Side Man, first produced in Poughkeepsie with Michael Mayer directing, was far from an instantaneous hit. "People were driving up in limousines," Leight recalls, "and Zoe Caldwell clasped my hand to her bosom saying, 'This is going straight to Broadway!' Then, for the next 18 months, the play was turned down or just ignored by every theater in New York. Only two theaters even bothered to explain that they weren't going to do it because they considered the use of a narrator to be 'an old device that had fallen out of favor.' Honestly, not one artistic director even called to say 'We can't do this, but let us see your next one,' or 'Come on in and have a cup of coffee.' It was not only rude, it was scarring. We were dead! Even the Roundabout [which eventually picked up the play] wouldn't come up to see it. Maybe if I'd come out of Julliard or somewhere like that... but I didn't go through the standard breeding grounds. [Leight was a Journalism major at Stanford.] I wasn't aware of how the game is played, and I wasn't mentored. So my plays were done a lot at Penguin Rep and the West Bank in its heyday. They kept theater people alive while everyone else was snubbing us."

Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine has followed its own circuitous route to MTC--which, coincidentally, is just a few blocks away from the onetime center of New York's jazz world, 52nd Street. A year and half ago, an early version of the play titled The Glimmer Brothers played at Williamstown. But Leight, who had expected a workshop situation à la Side Man in Poughkeepsie, soon learned that Williamstown "mounts quick, polished productions with very good acting but no development, and I had brought up a rough draft. So, next, I took it to Joe Brancato (director of Cobb) up at Penguin Rep in Stony Brook for a developmental production. It was Joe who suggested the current title. Then the play went to the Mark Taper. Gordon Davidson is a dream artistic director; two nights before the press was coming, he said, 'You know, there's still time to try out ideas.' There was nothing 'broke,' but we found a better way at the end of Act I to show that, because the past had been buried, it still hovers over these people.

"From the Taper to MTC, I've made two big changes, and hundreds of little changes and deletions. I've also tailored lines to different actors. If you trust your actors and some lines aren't working, then chances are those lines aren't right for the characters they've found. Also, the difference between the two coasts is like two different languages. 'Crap culture' plays better in L.A. and so does dropping celebrity names."

Leight still considers himself a bit of an 'outsider' for whom strong relationships are important--e.g., his long associations with The High Heeled Women and director Brancato. For GG&S, he has re-teamed with his Side Man designer Neil Patel and Lounge Lizard/composer Evan Lurie, who scored Leight's film The Night We Never Met (starring Matthew Broderick). Leight says that Lurie reminds him of Marty Glimmer in that "they're both too smart for the room."

The playwright has several other irons in the fire. His one-act The Final Interrogation of Ceaucescu's Dog, written for one of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's famous marathons, is now part of the ongoing Food for Thought lunchtime series at The Players Club. Also, Leight was the librettist of Mayor: The Musical and is currently collaborating with Alan Menken and Marion Adler on the new musical Big Street, based on the short stories of Damon Runyon (godfather to Guys and Dolls).

As our interview draws to a close, Leight mentions that he's about to see The Invention of Love. "Tom Stoppard had some very nice things to say about Side Man," he reveals, "especially the silences. Because neither of us is good at shutting up." Who on earth would want them to do so?

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