Theater Review - Blue note

Side Man plays taps for big band jazz

Nothing happens in Side Man's most exciting scene. The centerpiece of the Theatre in the Square production's second act finds a trio of jazzmen (Steve Coulter, Brik Berkes and Christopher Ekholm) gathered around a tape player, listening to real-life trumpeter Clifford Brown's performance on the last night of his life.

And that's it. The trumpet solo plays without interruption, and the actors say almost nothing, yet it's an engrossing theatrical moment. We admire the virtuoso musicianship, but the characters' reactions are what hold our attention. The musicians shake their heads, exchange impressed looks and give little laughs of surprise, until we in the audience feel like we're inside their heads, hearing the music the way the artists do.

Side Man's repertoire consists of one insightful detail after another, for playwright Warren Leight literally has jazz in his blood. His father, the recently deceased Donald Leight, played trumpet in the big band era, then saw his career dwindle over the decades. Leight's heavily autobiographical Side Man plays in a melancholy key that lacks strong organization but resonates with the sounds and textures of a life in music.

Leight narrates the play through his surrogate, Clifford (Chris Moses), who recounts the history of his parents, "Crazy" Terry (Kathleen McManus) and trumpeter Gene Glimmer (Coulter). They meet in a $9-a-week fleabag hotel for musicians, and the first time Terry hears Gene play, she exuberantly dances along with the band. But the actress emphasizes Terry's angry, suspicious qualities too hard, too early. Terry is meant to be hard-boiled — she's a foul-mouthed divorcee when she meets Gene — but McManus makes the character's subsequent rage and mental instability feel inevitable, and not the product of Terry's disappointment in her life with Gene.

As the years pass and the big bands give way to bebop, television and rock 'n' roll, Gene refuses to leave New York, where he's certain he has job security. Gene neglects his wife and son without conscious cruelty, and Coulter nicely conveys how Gene "checks out," losing attention in anything that doesn't involve jazz music.

Our hearts go out to Clifford, who quotes Gene as saying, "You have children to take care of you," and in the second act, he endures horrible domestic scenes with his irresponsible dad and drunk, suicidal mom. But as much as we sympathize with the son's predicament, neither Leight's portrait of the character nor Moses' performance makes Clifford very compelling.

Leight gives Side Man a to-and-fro flashback structure that allows Clifford to comment on events that occurred before he was born. But the scheme lacks tightness, and director Jessica Phelps West doesn't always clarify some of the shifts in time, especially in the play's early scenes.

But West comfortably stages Side Man's many charming scenes of musician camaraderie. Gene and the rest of the horn section crowd into the same restaurant booth and swap gossipy stories, while Clifford explains that jazzmen don't dance or pick up checks. Peter Thomasson's Jonesy, who's hooked on heroin and the trombone, talks about the distinction between a "junkie" and an "addict" (the latter still attends his gigs).

The penniless rituals of jazz marriages provide rueful humor. When Gene and Terry move in together, they decorate their apartment with furniture cast off from the many failed jazz marriages over the years. As the slutty, oft-married jazz-groupie Patsy, Kathleen Wattis gives a disarming, almost wholesome performance.

Theatre in the Square frequently programs shows that celebrate music and musicians, but Side Man feels like a necessary reality check to nostalgia-fests like The 1940s Radio Hour. With its dirty talk and drug use, Side Man plays with more street-level authenticity, compared to some of the playhouse's more comforting shows. Side Man isn't so much about the music as the price of making it.