Hoffman presents this framework for the show with great style. He puts on an easy Chicago manner, hooks us with the idea, then wanders through a range of personalities so broad we completely forget about Jacques. Are these people his friends? Distant relatives? Who knows? There's a Puerto Rican girl dealing with her parents' racism, a highbrow painter, the black mother of a baseball player, a Brooklyn-accented bookie who eulogizes a drug peddler in Oakland. They're all vivid, beautifully turned portraits, but I'll be damned if one of them even mentions Jacques.
First, a street-corner basketball player gives a speech to his boys about women. He dribbles a ball, throws around big words, and quotes Nietzsche. He's sly and obnoxious but likable, offering expert advice on the handling and seduction of the female species. "Wake up and smell the coffee, gentlemen!" he says. "White men own the world; women run it." The audience on my night wasn't sure if it was OK to laugh -- the material may bruise tender San Francisco sensibilities -- but Hoffman is in control; he gives the man plenty of wry surface charm before undercutting his spiel with a gesture.
Then comes a young Puerto Rican woman, pinning up her hair while she talks about her lover, Maceo. Her parents disapprove of Maceo. They used to disapprove of Dominican men, but Maceo is Puerto Rican. Only he's black. "It makes you wonder how people can look at something as beautiful as happiness," she muses, "and see only color." Her grandmother, the one member of the family who understands, tells a story about her own mother loving a black man but marrying somebody lighter-skinned. "No soy negro," says the grandmother, referring to her skin tone. "Soy claro. But not for love -- for baby's love." The skit resolves nothing; it's just a melancholy thumbnail of racial complexity.
A young, retired Cuban boxer wraps up his wrists for a workout while he talks to invisible officials about his career. They're about to shut the gym, so the boxer defends his sport as an honest game in spite of, well, any brain damage he might have suffered. He trots, feints, jabs, works the speed bag; he's in fighting trim and clearly misses competition. But twice during the interview he stares into space and seems to sag. During these seizures, he says, he hears music. "Hey, is not so bad," he says. "Some guys forget their own names -- I got music." Hoffman immerses himself thoroughly in the boxer and plays him with equal parts intelligence and affection. The link back to Uncle Jacques' big theme -- of music -- is so subtle it hardly matters; Hoffman's mastery over his material, in both writing and acting, casts a vivid spell.
Local audiences might remember Hoffman from his last-minute fill-in as the Magus in Dr. Faustus in February. Faustus was David Mamet's stilted experiment with the limits of language. Many of Hoffman's characters in Jacques seem to fool themselves with their own language, and you suspect that Mamet's ideas have worked an influence on Hoffman's writing. The prime example here is an English-accented artist who declares, "I dislike words. I don't trust them." But he's fiendishly good with them. He even seems to believe his own pronouncements about women, like the fast-talking basketball player. Hoffman is on to something, the way Mamet was, but I think his focus on jazz and Uncle Jacques has prevented him from developing language into a proper theme. His writing wobbles in the painter's skit, too; there are false notes -- false words -- which seem to jar with the man's personality, even if Hoffman's haughty manner is strong.
He ends with a portrait of a white bookie trying to eulogize an old friend, Lester Croft. "I'munna try and get through this without offending too many people or embarrassing myself," the bookie says, in a sullen accent that might be 1940s Brooklyn or Boston's South End. He's lived in San Francisco for years, but admits that Oakland is outside his usual range. He's only in Oakland to say good things about Lester, who may have died a drug dealer but who also read a lot of books. Lester liked Moby-Dick, for example. The bookie didn't understand why. "Moby Dick kicked Ahab's ass," he recalls complaining to his friend.
"'Yeah,' said Lester. 'But there was honor in the battle.'"
That phrase, "honor in the battle," sums up Hoffman's collection of characters better than the play's current misleading title. Most of them lose, in one way or another -- glory passes them by -- and Hoffman finds their genuine, unforced music by observing the way they move and talk. His riffs are terrific, well worth the price of admission. But the symphony has little to do with Uncle Jacques.