By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated July 14, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Part biodrama, part music-history lesson, and part piano concert, The Tin Pan Alley Rag is built around one clever, contrived Frost/Nixon-like premise — that hit-maker extraordinaire Irving Berlin and ragtime king Scott Joplin once swapped melodies and memories in a late-night jam session. (It’s not so far-fetched: Joplin spent years peddling his opera Treemonisha, and Berlin owned a music-publishing house, so Joplin could have walked into Berlin’s office.) Mark Saltzman’s play also rests on the highly implausible notion that two men, heretofore strangers, who shared little more than an innate gift for composition, would talk so openly — or at all — about their feelings.

Before long, ”Izzy” Berlin (played by an extremely likable Michael Therriault) is confessing that he feels responsible for his wife, Dorothy (Jenny Fellner), contracting typhoid fever on their honeymoon; the next thing we know, Joplin (Spin City‘s Michael Boatman, doing the best he can with a nearly humorless role) tells his new pal about Freddie (the lovely Idara Victor), who was struck down by pneumonia just months after their marriage. And since Joplin is 20 years older (and presumably wiser) at the time of this early-20th-century fictional meeting, he is forced to regurgitate chunks of stilted Yoda-esque wisdom: ”Dorothy has passed away,” he says, attempting to abate Berlin’s guilt. ”But you are alive. You cannot hurt her if you pursue another love…But you can allow her to inspire you to greater and greater heights of music.”

We’re meant to see the bond the songwriters forge and the commonalities between them. Yet as we flash back and forth between Berlin’s and Joplin’s biographical sketches — underscored beautifully by a selection of their tunes, both famous (”Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” ”The Entertainer”) and obscure but still accomplished (”Yiddisha Nightingale,” ”Bethena”) — we can’t escape the nagging feeling that we’re watching two different plays?and they don’t mesh. In music, when two distinct, independent melodies come together in perfect harmony it’s called counterpoint. Berlin’s gleeful charmer ”Play a Simple Melody” — which the characters (actually, two offstage pianists) knock out just prior to intermission — is a sterling example. Saltzman, it seems, is still searching for the theatrical equivalent. B-

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