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(ROYAL COURT JERWOOD THEATER DOWNSTAIRS; 400 SEATS; 22.50 [pounds sterling]; $32 TOP)

LONDON A Royal Court presentation of a play in two acts by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Richard Wilson. Sets and costumes, Julian McGowan; lighting, Johanna Town; sound, Paul Arditti; music adviser, Guy Pratt; assistant director, Dawn Walton. Opened, reviewed Dec. 4, 2000. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
Karl    Ciaran McMenamin
Jesse       Tommy Hollis
Della     Sophie Okonedo

Madison Square Garden is singular, not plural, but such lapses aren't the only indication that "I Just Stopped By to See the Man" is often less than authentic. An empathetic gesture that allows for one titanic performance rolling its deep-voiced way through a tortured plot, Stephen Jeffreys' Royal Court play casts a loving look at the American blues, as embodied by a retired Mississippi Delta singer, Jesse (Tommy Hollis), who has been given up for dead. But whereas one could imagine August Wilson, say, transforming precisely the same material into a cultural meditation that soars, Jeffreys exists at so many removes from his chosen terrain that you begin to mistrust the characters' talk. Add in the imbalances in a cast dominated by Hollis' thrilling star turn, and you have a laudable attempt at an Anglo-American fusion that falls notably short. "To sing the blues, you got to know the blues," says Jesse in a remark borne out by a play that sputters to a halt even as the music it fondly celebrates is transporting us to heaven.

I can't think of another play by a white Englishman (Jeffreys is the Court's literary associate) that deals so extensively with black Americans -- a gesture that may strike some as homage and others, equally fairly, as hubris. And it isn't just the formidable presence of Hollis, a Broadway veteran of such Wilson plays as "The Piano Lesson" and "seven Guitars," that puts one in mind of the contemporary theater's leading Afro-American dramatist. Like Wilson, Jeffreys values elaborate vocal tiffs and reminiscences, while his themes embrace such Wilson mainstays as retribution and guilt leading up to a highly ambiguous, hymnal rebirth.

What's missing from this play is the furious beauty encountered in mere seconds of the belly-aching numbers that Jesse sings. For Hollis alone, the play -- however etiolated -- constitutes an event. So would a post-show cabaret, if the Royal Court could persuade its richly sonorous visitor to let rip late one evening or two.

The affinity between American music and the British is by now well known: Why else would shows like "Buddy," not to mention numerous Elvis impersonators, thrive in the U.K. while collapsing on those artists' home turfs? To that extent, one readily accepts Jeffreys' conceit, which pairs off the septuagenarian Jesse with Karl (Ciaran McMenamin), a thirtysomething rock `n' roller from England's home counties here seen touring the American South ca. 1975. (The character is apparently based -- one has to assume mighty loosely -- on Keith Richards, although Eric Clapton seems far more plausible.)

Long thought to have been killed in a car crash, Jesse relishes his life as a recluse and doesn't necessarily warm to an admiring Karl's persistent entreaties. But just as the self-hating Jesse -- the blues, he reckons, is the devil's music -- needs to shake off the sorrier parts of his past, so, too, is the drug-plagued Karl driven toward a fresh start. All it takes is the concert stage for both men to begin life anew.

Their potential symbiosis exists, of course, to be complicated, with a ready-made human impediment in Jesse's tough-talking, radicalized daughter Della (Sophie Okonedo), a waitress with her own bloody secrets to tell. Jeffreys can't avoid the melodramatic as he teases out his triangular tale while omitting the very substance of the much-vaunted return -- the climactic concert -- toward which the play builds. It doesn't help that neither McMenamin nor, particularly, Okonedo works their roles from within: The former has the shaggy hair and faintly soft-bellied demeanor for the part without the flash and allure to explain his supposed appeal to millions. Sporting an accent as hollow as her face looks pouty, Okonedo (Trevor Nunn's recent National Theater Cressida in Shakespeare's play) struggles visibly with an assignment that may mark too great a stretch: The role could be easily and satisfyingly recast if "I Just Stopped By" ever gets to the States.

Happily, the Royal Court turned to the U.S. for its leading player in one of the happiest performance surprises of this quickly fading theater year. Rumbling his way on to Julian McGowan's evocative set, a so-called shotgun shack scarcely larger than Karl's (offstage) Cadillac, Hollis suggests a portly sage, his eyes glistening with experience and a hard-won wisdom.

And yet, aided by Richard Wilson's direction, the actor never sentimentalizes a character whose artistry is inseparable from his pain. Equal parts B.B. King, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hollis nonetheless makes Jesse a true original who can deliver up the blues because he has sequestered the songs' meanings deep away.

Small wonder, then, that the play's finest passages sacrifice any portentous discussion of the "cross roads" to the low, liquid roar of a man and his music. "It was the last performance of the real thing," a proud Jesse tells his daughter, and with Hollis center stage, the theater simply doesn't get any more real.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Dec 11, 2000
Previous Article:FAR AWAY.

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