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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
and their personal lives and careers began to disintegrate.
Warren Leight’s heartfelt, insightful, and humor-studded play
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
is primarily a simple memory play based on the narrowing journeys
of Gene (Frank Wood), a passionate if maddeningly self-absorbed
player. As seen from the bruised perspective of his adult son Clifford
(Robert Sella), Gene is enigmatic and remote. But Gene is also
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
What is more remarkable is how much tender grace is afforded Gene
by Clifford, who, through retrospection, introspection, and some
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
for not having had a more conventional family and childhood and for
having to care for his increasingly depressed (and eventually
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
father; a master jazzman who remains steadfastly transfixed by his
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
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
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
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
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
next June. And let’s not forget the Pulitzer Prize.
— Simon Saltzman
Broadway at 45, 212-719-1300. $55. To September 20.
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