Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

July 22, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Side Man’

Like the dinosaurs that once proudly roamed the earth,

the Big Bands were modern-day behemoths that roamed this great country

of ours. And like the dinosaurs that became extinct from a sudden

change in climate, the big bands died out when the musical climate

changed drastically in the mid-1950s. Most musicians refused to look

at the handwriting (read, guitar) on the wall when the big bands they

relied on began to disband in earnest with the onslaught of rock.

Some, like the accomplished sidemen (the term used to describe the

musicians who traveled and augmented the star line-up in big name

bands of the 1940s), found the going got tougher as gigs became

scarcer

and their personal lives and careers began to disintegrate.

Warren Leight’s heartfelt, insightful, and humor-studded play

"Side

Man" has deservedly moved uptown to the Roundabout Theater after

a limited run at the CSC Theater. It is about the end of an era, a

glorious era when the great American songbook was still being written,

either played straight or jazzed-up, and otherwise immortalized by

groups of dedicated and often inspired musicians. But "Side

Man"

is primarily a simple memory play based on the narrowing journeys

of Gene (Frank Wood), a passionate if maddeningly self-absorbed

trumpet

player. As seen from the bruised perspective of his adult son Clifford

(Robert Sella), Gene is enigmatic and remote. But Gene is also

observed

as a man consumed by music and consecrated by the playing of it.

It is remarkable how much empathy we feel for Gene, even as he appears

to walk through life in a daze, treating his neglected wife as an

inconvenience and his otherwise bright and artistic son as a

distraction.

What is more remarkable is how much tender grace is afforded Gene

by Clifford, who, through retrospection, introspection, and some

cleverly

devised interaction, attempts to understand his relationship with

his itinerate father and dysfunctional mother.

Much of the charm in Leight’s play comes from the captivating way

Clifford’s narrative catapults him either into the action or keeps

him on the edge of a scene as a wry observer. But I also suspect that

it is the clever way that director Michael Mayer (director of the

Tony Award-winning "A View From the Bridge") stages the entire

play that gives "Side Man" of its wryest twists.

At first we suspect that Clifford may harbor some bitterness and

regret

for not having had a more conventional family and childhood and for

having to care for his increasingly depressed (and eventually

suicidal)

mother from the age of 10. To the play’s credit, our suspicions change

as radically as the times. The play jumps around schematically from

1953 to 1985. It is propelled by Clifford’s memories, as he makes

a final attempt to understand both the bond that ties him and the

chasm that separates him from his parents.

With the exception of Wendy Makkena, who replaces Edie

Falco in the role of Terry, the wife and mother, the whole cast has

had time to steadily enrich their already unforgettable images. But

at this, my second viewing, I was just as impressed by the slightly

more shrill and terrifying Makkena as the unstable and chain-smoking

Terry. The scene in which the unbalanced (in all respects) Terry sits

on the window ledge as Clifford attempts to bring her inside is a

heart-stopper. But as heartbreaking as are Clifford’s compassionate

feelings for his mother, he is steeped in awe for his resolutely

unaffectionate

father; a master jazzman who remains steadfastly transfixed by his

calling.

Sella is terrific as the ingratiating Clifford, who takes us back

to the dingy apartment where he was raised, and to the smoky hangouts

where he learned a thing or two about collecting unemployment checks

— and more importantly about music and it makers. In a series

of terse, beautifully written and acted scenes, a music-charged world

is brought to life. It is a world once influenced by such nobility

as Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, a world to which Gene once

belonged

and which Clifford tried to understand. But it was also a world from

which the alcoholic, mentally-deteriorating Terry was kept out.

Sitting at the round table at the Melody Club, Gene and his cronies

are the antithesis of the literary crowd that graced New York’s

legendary

Algonquin round table. Here, where java is dispensed with the jive

and the jabber, the truth, as they express it, comes straight from

the lip. However, for the most stunning expression of truth there

is a scene in which these musicians, during a break with the Lester

Lanin society band, listen together to a tape of the late trumpeter

Clifford Brown. Each man enters into his own private space and into

an exalted state of communion with the music. We cannot help but envy

their experience. You won’t soon forget Wood’s half-glazed and fully

fazed performance as Gene. Michael Mastro is a hoot as Ziggie, the

fast-comeback quipster, who zings home the play’s funniest barbs and

asides. Kevin Geer gets laughs but also our sympathy as Jonesy, the

heroin addict. And Lyle Taylor, as ladies’ man Al, amuses with his

irresistible Nathan Detroit veneer.

Angelica Torn is just splendid as the worldly and wise waitress who

seems to marry every musician she romances and unwittingly becomes

the confidant and mother that Clifford never had. The irregular

meetings

of Gene’s story-telling cronies, former members of Claude Thornhill

band, are rich with period detail. But the richest moments are those

in which Clifford stands around as an unobserved onlooker and

commentator.

There is an amusing scene when Clifford takes us back to his parents’

first meeting and romantic encounter. It is a lovely memory that is

first colored by Clifford’s imagination, but then interrupted and

put to right. Designer Neil Patel uses impressionism to artfully evoke

a seedy apartment and seedier lounge.

"Side Man" is a thought-provoking play with many layers and

emotions to consider and reconsider. The deserved praise it is getting

from the critics and the public may insure it yet another move to

an open-ended run at a regular Broadway house. Even with the season

just beginning, "Side Man" will be the one to beat come

Tony-time

next June. And let’s not forget the Pulitzer Prize.

HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

Side Man, Roundabout Theater Company, Stage Right, 1530

Broadway at 45, 212-719-1300. $55. To September 20.


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