The quest for inspiration is itself not inherently inspiring. That's the most important lesson to be gained from Eyewitness Blues, the new play that just opened at the New York Theatre Workshop. Other instructive messages are perhaps on offer, but with a show as muddled and one-dimensional as this one, don't expect to find them very easily in the piece itself.
What you can expect from the play - which was written by Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp, who also star - is a pedantic examination of an artist's inner works wrapped in a production as thoughtful and beautifully appointed as the text is vapid. Director Talvin Wilks's crisply disjointed staging and scenic designer Narelle Sissons's luscious red-curtain-and-mirror set treat the play with a seriousness and inventiveness usually reserved for making oft-revived chestnuts like Hamlet or Death of a Salesman seem fresh again.
However, there's not much that's particularly fresh in the almost-story of trumpeter Junior McCullough (Sapp), who unconsciously meditates on the origin of his musicality in the seconds before he breathes to blow into his instrument. His story - and, indeed, the social history of the Blues itself - is conjured up by Junior's Muse (Ruiz), who taunts and tantalizes Junior and narrates for us a stream-of-consciousness series of events that led him to this evening's performance.
Ruiz has strong stage presence and the ability to squeeze every drop of dramatic juice out of her spoken and sung interludes, and Sapp has the voice and stamina necessary to sustain an ever-changing series of characters. Still, neither is enough to raise Eyewitness Blues above the level of inconsequential; though Sissons's set seems designed to capitalize on the concept of personal reflection, we're never well enough acquainted with Junior to care about him as much more than a racial and musical symbol of progress.
And while the show never bores - Wilks's kinetic staging makes that an impossibility - nor does it ever, well, inspire. One almost wonders if the physical production - which is richly augmented by Emilio Sosa's sardonically sexy costumes and Heather Carson's dynamic lights - prevents the show from attaining the raw edge it always seems to need. If the attractive surroundings aren't at odds with the text's rapid-fire internalizing, nor do they ever truly reflect or complement the show's intended emotional core.
The opening of the show, however, suggests some latent potential on which the authors weren't entirely able to capitalize. At Junior's first appearance, he's flanked by two other trumpet players (Antoine Drye and Paul Jonathan Thompson) who drift to the corners of the stage and comment on the action entirely by means of the original music they composed with Carlos Pimental. When one plays a melancholy wail on his muted trumpet, he summons up just the proper atmosphere of down-and-dirty music-making in a cigarette smoke-choked dive.
This gives the show its surest sense of place and purpose; the rest of the production would greatly benefit from music this evocative, theatricality this intense. But even the presence of intermittently peppy choreography (by Adesola A. Osakalumi) and spicy flamenco movement (Jaime Coronado) for the Muse isn't enough to get Eyewitness Blues up on its feet. The tunes to which it's dancing are its own, but for the show to succeed as an exploration of the artistic heart of a trumpet player or anyone else, we need to hear them, too.
New York Theatre Workshop