In Warren Leight’s semi-autobiographical
play "Side Man," the subject is talented trumpeter
Gene Glimmer, whose passion for his music eclipses his love for
his wife and child.
In the 1940s, a sideman was a jazz musician who went from gig to gig playing backup for bandleaders or solo singers. The playwright’s own father was the trumpeter Don Leight (who died last January at age 80).
Leight’s play, starring John Blaylock as Glimmer, is now being staged at the Gallery Players, directed by Heather Siobhan Curran.
Narrated by Gene’s son, Clifford (named after the famed trumpeter Clifford Brown), "Side Man" depicts the death of the great jazz bands and the decline of Gene’s marriage to Terry (Erin Kate Howard). Clifford (Jason Winfield), a collage artist, reconstructs the past much as he creates his art - piece by piece.
If Gene is the central figure in the plot - the man whose passion turns into a poison to those closest to him - it is Clifford, moving gracefully in and out of the action, who is the glue between the spaces of the 30 years that separate the present from the distant past. The young man, who has come back to his father’s favorite gig, The Melody Club, to say goodbye before taking off for the West Coast, makes wry comments on the vicissitudes of his parents’ lives: his mother’s descent from a plucky, somewhat naive New York transplant from East Boston into a harridan suffering from alcoholism and insanity; and his father’s inability to connect with his wife, his son or any aspect of life save his music.
Winfield’s performance has both good and not-so-good aspects. At times his detachment prevents "Side Man" from falling into the kind of melodrama that characterizes daytime television. On the other hand, there are moments when Winfield’s ambling into the scene breaks into the heat of the drama at the exact point when it is most compelling.
At any rate, it is Blaylock, with his clueless good nature, and Howard, whose passionate performance is the anchor of the dramatic action, who delivered the outstanding performances of the evening for this reviewer. Winfield seemed more like Thornton Wilder’s disengaged stage manager for most of the play.
Other fine performances are turned in by Amy Smith as Patsy, the kind-hearted waitress who goes through husbands like a chain smoker goes through cigarettes, and Gene’s three cronies: Al (D. H. Johnson), Ziggy (Patrick Toon) and most especially the one-eyed heroin addict Jonesy (Daniel Damiano).
Cully Long’s set, central to the success of this show, allows the characters to move from past to present, from the Glimmer’s dismal apartment (furnished in "Early American Divorce," the detritus of friends’ failed marriages) to Jonesy’s jail cell to The Melody Club. It also illustrates in minute detail - the cracked paint on the Glimmer’s door, the leaky sink in the jail cell, the worn leatherette benches in the club - the sleazy existence of the Glimmers and their friends and at the same time has an impressionistic quality that is truly evocative.
Martin Miller’s soundscape works beautifully with Kate Ashton’s lighting and the set to establish the mood and make the transitions as smooth as a jazz riff.
"Side Man," which won the 1999 Tony for best play and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is the kind of play that easily strikes a different emotional chord in different people. Some will see Leight’s work as a lament for the decline of jazz. (In one scene Gene and his friends watch Elvis Presley performing on the Ed Sullivan show and comment that he will be the one to give jazz its final death blow.)
Others will see the play as a depiction of a dysfunctional marriage and the way it affects a young boy growing up in a house where his father is mostly absent and the mother is all too present.
Still others will look at "Side Man" as a coming-of-age play about a young boy who, after years of taking care of an ailing mother and helping his father navigate through life, finally decides to make his own way. And they will all be correct - to some extent.
Like all good plays, "Side Man" has multiple layers, and fortunately, the Gallery Players have been sensitive to the ambiguity in the play and the ambivalence in the author. The result is theater as it should be - thoughtful, provocative and extremely moving.
The Gallery Players production of "Side Man" plays through Dec. 12, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and children under 12. The Gallery Players is located at 199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547 or visit www.galleryplayers.com.
©2004 Community News Group
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