photo: Joan Marcus
The situation, which has "The King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin paying an initially desperate but ultimately inspirational visit to songsmith Irving Berlin, is contrived and the dialogue is often clunky. (Here's one groaner: "Maybe you can turn that Tin Pan Alley tin into something greater than gold!") Yet, when he's not heavy-handedly making the case for art over commerce, playwright Mark Saltzman is on to a theme that is hard to resist: art lives longer than the artist. I got a bit misty-eyed at the moment when the play makes clear that Joplin's opera Treemonisha, rejected in the composer's lifetime, finally got its due; I wasn't the only one, judging from the chorus of sniffles all around me. The play's essential argument, that Berlin wasn't a serious artist because he worked within the confines of the marketplace, rings false; it's rather like saying that Hitchcock wasn't a serious filmmaker because he worked in the studio system. Whenever we hear one of Berlin's tunes the man's genius is evident. The play is packed with Joplin rags and Berlin songs, a not inconsiderable pleasure, and the lead actors are hugely engaging. Michael Boatman brings an almost regal dignity to Joplin, as if the strength of the composer's artistic vision has lifted him to a higher consciousness. Michael Therriault brings a gentleness and a likability to flesh out Berlin who, on the page, often comes close to being cold and one-note.