Some people might look at Side Man, Warren Leight's Tony award-winning play about the dysfunctional family of a jazz musician, and compare the characters in the show to the players in a jazz ensemble, with individuals going off on their own individual riffs before returning to pursue the main theme. It's a nice simile, but it doesn't really describe Side Man. Side Man is nothing more than a good, solid play about a family, set in the world of jazz music.
The play is narrated by Clifford, the son of trumpeter Gene Glimmer and his wife Terry. The show goes back and forth in time, and we are shown the genesis of their marriage, its tattered shreds, and everything in between. The play begins near the end of the story, when Clifford, now an adult, pays a visit to both his parents just before leaving town to take a new job. We first meet Terry, a woman who did not age gracefully and whose grasp on reality is none too firm. We are then introduced to Gene and three of his fellow musician-friends, playing jazz in a lounge. We see the corner table where they've laughed and eaten for years, and learn about the gigs they've played and the unemployment checks they've collected.
But the story begins thirty years earlier, when Gene was a successful jazz side man, always on the road with one band or another. When we first see Gene and Terry in their youth, it is not merely the change in their appearance that is striking. Terry is transformed from a world-weary mother into a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young woman. And the old man we saw as Gene seems to sparkle with the excitement of a young talent with his whole life ahead of him. Gene's off-stage trumpet playing flirts with Terry, and she is halfway won before he even enters and turns his charming smile on her.
The play progresses as Terry and Gene sleep together, live together, get pregnant, and marry (in that order). As Clifford narrates with the perspective of hindsight, we see their marriage, for which Clifford feels responsible, deteriorate, and, along with it, Terry's sanity.
This is not to say that the play is a heart-rending tear-jerker about how a woman in an unhappy marriage is driven to self-destruction. On the contrary, Side Man never allows itself to get quite that serious. Whenever a moment threatens to push the audience into lump-in-your-throat territory, Clifford enters the scene as narrator, and diffuses the dramatic tension with a wry aside. This is both a good and bad thing. Clifford's levity comes at the price of our ability to become immersed in the more touching scenes of the play. There are some beautiful moments in the show, and they invariably come when Clifford is not a character in the scene. It seems that just as we are beginning to share a private moment with the characters living it on the stage, we glance up and notice Clifford lurking nearby, observing it with us, and the spell is broken.
Still, the fact that theatrical magic was being spun, however briefly, cannot be denied. Terry is played by Mare Winningham, and she is equally believable as a young newlywed and a disenchanted wife. Dennis Christopher's portrayal emphasizes Gene's likeability; it is clear that Gene's mistreatment of Terry isn't done out of malice, but is simply the result of inattention. Gene's feelings for any person, even his wife, cannot approach the passion he feels for his music. Another notable performance is turned in by Daniel Reichert, as one of Gene's friends, Jonesy. Jonesy is a junkie and, in the time-honored tradition of fictionalized drug-addicts, he is more perceptive to the realities surrounding him than anyone else. Reichert plays the drug-induced philosopher beautifully, to the point where you can almost forgive Jonesy for giving Terry her first drink, and starting her down her own path to addiction.
The one weak player in the cast is JD Cullum as Clifford, and it is not entirely his fault. While the other actors are called upon to play a thirty-year range as adults, Cullum must play a scene as Clifford at the age of ten. Cullum musses his shirt and fidgets his hands like a ten-year-old, but the end result is funny, while the scene played calls for a dramatic encounter between him and Terry. Had the play been conceived with an actual ten-year-old playing the role of young Clifford, we could have seen in the boy's face the effect of having to play parent to his alcoholic mother. As it was, the dramatic possibility was lost, as we were simply watching an adult pretend to be ten.
This is characteristic of most of the play's flaws, which feel more like missed opportunities than actual defects. The sometimes-distracting narration and failure to use an actual young boy prevent Side Man from being a great play, but it is still a damn good one.
Side Man runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 17, 2001.
Pasadena Playhouse, State Theatre of California; Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla L. White, Executive Director proudly presents Side Man by Warren Leight. Scenic design John Iacovelli, costume design Maggie Morgan, Lighting Design J. Kent Inasy, Sound Design Stafford M Floyd, Composer Peter Erskine, Casting Marilyn Mandel, Hair & Wig Design Judi Lewin, Production Stage Manager Heidi Swartz, Stage Manager Lea Chazin, Directed by Andrew J. Robinson. Cast: Clifford - JD Cullum Terry - Mare Winningham Patsy - Lee Garlington Gene - Dennis Christopher Al - Gareth Williams Ziggy - Ethan Phillips Jonesy - Daniel Reichert