Betrayal is one of the great engines of storytelling. A strong, game-changing pivot point that thankfully, in real life, is most commonly manifested in less-devastating disappointment, a general letdown in someone previously trusted.
“Bars and Measures,” a jazz-classical two-hander (with a couple extra hands) that’s on through February 26 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, hides its betrayal “twist” in plain sight. The problem — and it is a problem — isn’t exactly that this defangs it into only disappointment, but that it leaves the plot fewer places to go after the reveal. To use the musical vocabulary of the show, it’s a motif that fails to mature.
Brothers Eric (Joel Ashur) and Bilal (Louis E. Davis) are both New York-based musicians. Eric, a pianist who leans toward classical, is expanding more into jazz and starting a new job as a private school teacher. Bilal, a cellist who converted to Islam, is awaiting trial on terror-related charges, trying to make his Ramadan fast work from solitary confinement without much help from the prison authorities that be. Let’s jam!
Written by Idris Goodwin and directed by Mosaic Theater Company artistic director Reginald L. Douglas, “Bars and Measures” is a chamber piece about brothers trying to get on the same page of sheet music. It weaves creative expression, fraternity, a whole lot of Islamophobia and angry responses, but in the end, I was surprised by how little it has to say that feels new.
Ashur and Davis don’t look like brothers, but they have good chemistry and rapport; you can feel the way they’ve had the same arguments over and over. They are joined by supporting players Afsheen Misaghi and Lynette Rathnam, filing this duet out to a quartet. Everyone does their job well — with a particular shout-out to scenic designer Paige Hathaway and composer Kristopher Funn — and there are moments when the story sweeps you up, particularly when helped along by the music.
None of it is shabby or sloppy, but for some reason it does bring to mind that old joke about the cab driver who asked how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
“Bars and Measures” plays at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through February 26.