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Cool Blues

Bill Harris' engaging play centers on an African-American musician whose health is rapidly deteriorating. logo
Marcus Naylor and Terria Joseph in Cool Blues
(© Gerry Goodstein)
"No matter how hard I try, I can't get away from the Blues," says B (Marcus Naylor) in Bill Harris' engaging Cool Blues, presented by the New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center. A talented and influential horn player, B is nevertheless penniless. He's trying to kick a drug habit and get his career back on track after a truly horrendous year, but whether or not he can channel or escape from his personal tragedies to once again create music is uncertain.

This admittedly overwritten work is set in New York City in 1955, and begins as B has broken his friend and fellow musician Kid Welpool (Jay Ward) out of the nuthouse, so that they can play a gig. It ends disastrously. B's health is also rapidly deteriorating, and he turns to the only person who he thinks may be able to help him.

That happens to be the Baroness Alexandra Isabella von Templeton (Terria Joseph), or Xan for short. Despite their obvious differences -- he's a poor, African-American musician, while she is a wealthy white woman -- Xan sees B as a kindred spirit, jokingly referring to the two of them as "the noble savage and the savage noble." But while there is a certain amount of condescension in her attitude towards B, there's also genuine concern for his well-being.

Harris has a playful use of language, and a passage in which B tells an abbreviated (and hilarious) history of the world to Kid Welpool is an early highlight of the show. Naylor's phrasing of B's lines has a musicality to it that helps to flesh out his character, and also proves to be one of B's most charismatic traits.

Joseph's British accent is not always convincing, but she handles the contradictory aspects of her character well, as Xan uses her position of privilege to get what she wants -- such as calling in a favor so that a doctor (Ezra Barnes) will come treat her friend -- while also being sensitive to the injustices that B faces for not having the same advantages. A lengthy monologue, in which we discover the tragedies in Xan's own life, is nicely delivered, even if the speech itself is awkwardly introduced into the play's narrative flow.

The playwright's use of B's mother (Stephanie Barry) and ex-wife (Maria Silverman) as voices in B's head that physically manifest onstage is another aspect of the play that doesn't work as well as it could. The two often speak in overlapping sentences, and their constant refrain of asking B, "Are you satisfied?" seems like a heavy-handed way of demonstrating B's feelings of guilt and regret.

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