Rather than taking place in a dressing room at the Waldorf-Astoria (as implied by the title and set design), or within the imagination of main character Louis Armstrong (as suggested by the material’s discursiveness), the entirety of Satchmo at the Waldorf unfolds in whatever theater it happens to be playing. A monologue delivered by a single actor (John Douglas Thompson), the play respects no fourth wall. Armstrong speaks directly to the audience rather than to himself, in the de rigueur one-man-show fashion, baiting the crowd with gags about racial homogeneity and then clenching his fingers maniacally inward to encourage their laughter. (The performance I attended in New Haven was played to an all-white house; in what is surely optional script at the play’s middle, Armstrong described us as a “carton of eggs.”)
As in the similarly quasi-historical monologue Secret Honor, there is a reel-to-reel tape recorder on stage, into which Armstrong intimates biographical details for posterity. But the implausibility of the apparatus’s use in that location—surely Pops wouldn’t have been taping his memoirs in small dressing rooms during the sickly year of his death—doesn’t allow it to function properly as a plot device, and Thompson quickly ignores its dead weight. He instead intones Armstrong’s memories with his back to the tape recorder’s microphone, often hurling angry reminiscences toward the top row seats when he isn’t mugging to them. The objective of this inclusiveness, though it continually stresses the artifice of the production, is not Brechtian cuteness but historical accuracy. The play is essentially extroverted, and it requires an acknowledged audience for fulfillment—just as Armstrong did. Upstage, a large, visible make-up mirror surrounded by bald lightbulbs shows the ghostly image of the actor’s dorsal side, along with the faces of the dimly-lit onlookers behind it—the performer is effectively besieged by ticket holders and their reflections. (Whether this is meant to represent Armstrong’s idea of heaven or of hell remains ambiguous.)
But writer Terry Teachout and director Gordon Edelstein have also included “the public” in their play as a silent character, so as to to unleash the explicitly private Armstrong upon it. The veil of showbiz propriety is torn, and Armstrong, as in his personal notes, spews a regionally colorful assortment of swears and strident opinions concerning bebop and civil rights. Satchmo at the Waldorf thus becomes the story of Armstrong’s life as he probably would have liked it to be told interpersonally, to anyone and everyone, in the raw, clipped cadence of his foul vernacular; it hopes to provide his iconography with a rootsy, brash catharsis while remaining tonally casual. In the play’s representative opening, Armstrong describes how he messed his pants in the hotel elevator earlier that day. Thompson’s pained but nonchalant delivery almost suggests an attempt to break the ice between two obligatory conversationalists.
That the anecdote is quickly converted into a lament about age, however (“How did I get so old?” he croaks), signals a troubling trepidation toward the many coarse affairs Armstrong was not shy about among friends, including his marijuana use and his bowel movements. Teachout’s acclaimed biography on Armstrong is similarly hesitant to delve into the man’s bodily functions, despite their centrality to his daily life and down-to-earth demeanor. His fecal obsessions are even easily explainable: Due to a penurious youth involving much starchy, unhealthy food, he became fixated upon intestinal cleanliness, and he regulated his own metabolism with laxatives. As for the pot smoking, only Gary Giddins’s musicological text on the trumpeter dares to connect his unflagging grins with the levels of THC floating about his bloodstream, a dangerous but very likely hypothesis.
Armstrong’s rituals of pot and shit are downplayed and omitted, respectively, from Satchmo at the Waldorf’s selective biographical arc, which focuses largely on Armstrong’s relationship with manager and erstwhile mobster Joe Glaser. Thompson portrays the Jewish mogul as well in fits and starts, employing abrupt, grand-actorly transitions to create a cragged dialectic of consciousness. (Lighting cues signal a departure from the Waldorf setting as well, revealing a phony-looking, Chicago-skyline backdrop during Glaser scenes that is otherwise hidden from view.) His approximation of Glaser’s midwestern anti-charm helps to keep the play’s 90 minutes dynamic, and Teachout’s fictionalization of the two’s wonky working rhythms offers lyrical insight on their strange, yet incalculably lucrative, partnership. But one wonders if Armstrong’s equally difficult and necessary reliance on Swiss Kriss wouldn’t have made for a more usefully startling dramatic arc. To reveal the dirty business of Armstrong before an adoring audience is one thing, but what about the dirty body?
While Teachout and Edelstein have blocked their material to put Armstrong exactly where he belongs, with an eternal crowd to mug to, the material itself suffers from strenuous accuracy, polite elisions, and only half-imaginative what-ifs. (One gets the impression that Teachout knows Armstrong better than the trumpeter knew himself in 1971.) Even the warts-and-all approach to Armstrong’s character feels forced; Miles Davis and Orval Faubaus get called a “nigger” and a “cocksucker,” respectively, but one anticipates bolder flights of arrogance or misinterpretation from an aging genius. Explaining why, precisely, Armstrong was a genius also proves an awkwardly upheld obligation. When Armstrong leads the audience through a tape recording of his enormously influential “West End Blues,” for example, he talks like a critic, describing an operatic climb to a high C note in the song’s opening in terms of narrative.
Thompson soldiers his reverential and highly entertaining impression through this shamefully uncharacteristic passage, but the analysis feels too eager, much like intermittent mouthfuls of matter-of-fact bio-fluff—about Armstrong’s prostitute mother, or his tenure with Kid Oliver—feel included to suggest academic comprehensiveness. These omniscient-narrator-like lines wreck the intimacy that the thoughtful staging manages with the character. The script’s obvious desire to raise awareness of Armstrong’s accomplishments gets in the way of a truly impeccable representation of the man’s lively roughness.
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs on Stage II at the Long Wharf Theatre until November 2.