"Cool Blues," directed by Edward G. Smith and now on stage at the African-American Cultural Center's Paul Robeson Theatre, is loosely based on the last days of the great saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. It is meandering and graceful, like a bebop solo.
Like many a bebop solo I have heard, it is also too long.
Its unhurried pace is evident from the opening scene, a drawn-out drama between Bird -- in this context called simply "B" -- and his strung-out pianist Kid Welpool, based on Bud Powell. (Welpool is almost an anagram for Powell, now that I think about it.)
Welpool, in a hospital gown, has just been sprung from the hospital -- by B, in hopes that the pianist will be able to play a gig at Birdland. All the distraught pianist can talk about is his girlfriend, Honeybee.
B: "Do you remember anything, Kid? Do you remember how you used to play the piano?"
Kid: "I remember Honeybee."
Knowing what we do about Parker and his own substance-abuse difficulties, it is frightening to think that his musicians might have been worse off than he was. If Parker emerges as the strong one in this scene, though, the following scenes show his weakness.
Parker shows up at the apartment of Xan, in real life the Baroness Pannonica von Koenigswarter, the rich Rothschild who befriended Thelonious Monk and, to a lesser extent, Bird. The show picks up. Xan is played by Lisa Ludwig, who gets the character right. She is funny and endearing and exasperating, all at the same time. She thinks she can control everything.
Ludwig gives the part a light touch. You could see what the brooding beboppers saw in her. She is more fun than the other women in poor Parker's life, that is for sure.
These two other women are Parker's wife, Chan (called Chim and played by Kaitlyn Brzostowicz) and his mother, played by Betty Stone. They turn up in brief, wan, avant-garde cameos. "Are you satisfied?" they keep asking him, reproachfully.
Probably this is supposed to suggest what it is like inside a sick man's head. But the two haranguing figures are tiresome. (Incredibly, the program says that Brzostowicz is known as a stand-up comic. She is sure playing against type.)
The musicians are well cast. Peter Johnson plays Welpool as a big, soft, helpless baby -- you have to suspend disbelief and imagine that he can play the piano, but that's probably how it was in real life when one of these guys went off the deep end.
As B, Kinzy Brown is good. He would be too old for the part were it not for the fact that Parker, by the time he died, looked far older than his age. With that in mind, Brown is more suited to the part than the prettier Charlie Parkers in other productions pictured on the Internet.
He has a world weariness, an old-soul quality. But he also has humor. He gets some great one-liners. There are a surprising number of laughs in this drama. And a lot of the dialogue has a poetry.
Jerrold Brown, a lawyer in real life, brings sympathy to the thankless part of the doctor who comes reluctantly to treat B. Those are chilly moments when he is on stage. You cannot help but notice how he does not want to address the musician directly.
Plays, like movies, seem to get longer and longer. This one could, and should, have been sharply edited, starting with the long opening scene. It began losing its audience. People grew restless, began coughing and whispering.
Still, it accomplished something -- it made us think about Parker, about the things that might have been. Its most eloquent moments were the haunting excerpts of the real Bird, heard on an old turntable.
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 9
WHERE: Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave.
INFO: 884-2013, www.africancultural.org