Troubled jazz trumpeter drafts family
By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, Apr. 5, 2012
In some ways, Warren Leight's Tony-winning memory play "Side Man" is a kitchen-sink drama about a warring married couple and the beleaguered son who tries to make peace and keep the home fires burning but not raging.
But Leight's autobiographical 1998 play, receiving a more-than-solid production through April 22 at 1stStage, has a lightness in its soul because it is about more than an unhappy family being unhappy. It is about the way artists sometimes live and the way people who love them suffer because of the artist's creative obsession and self-obsession.
In "Side Man," the sufferers are Clifford Glimmer (Patrick Bussink), the son of brilliant but underemployed jazz trumpeter Gene Glimmer (Chris Mancusi), and Gene's bitter, alcoholic wife, Terry (Lee Mikeska Gardner). Bussink is simply terrific as the play's center of gravity. Sporting a convincing blue-collar Brooklyn accent as the adult Clifford, Bussink narrates the play, setting the scenes and cluing the audience in on the characters. The beauty of his performance is that he tells us all about these difficult, infuriating people and yet loves and forgives them, all in a gesture or the lilt of a line. Bussink is also utterly convincing as Clifford's childhood self, interacting with the others onstage.
The events of "Side Man" occur between the 1950s and 1985; Clifford introduces himself to us in 1985. He has come home after a long absence to visit his now-separated parents. He then takes us back, recounting how they met, had a fling and, despite their wildly divergent personalities, got married when Terry became pregnant. It was at the moment when rock-and-roll, in the form of Elvis and later the Beatles, pushed jazz off the map and made it even harder to earn a buck as a trumpeter for hire. Gene turns out to be clueless about salvaging his career.
Gardner tears with feverish gusto into Terry, the aggrieved wife and mother. Angry, chain-smoking, hard-drinking and depressive, she watches her expectations go down the drain. The little boy she's supposed to care for must instead take care of her. Her quiet, dreamy husband hears only music in his head and mostly ignores his wife's ever-angrier harangues.
All this plays out against a convincingly seedy and timeless set (designed by Steven Royal) with a moody backdrop of black-washed brick. At the center of the stage is the Glimmers' ill-kept Brooklyn apartment, full of ratty furniture. At the audience's right is the appropriately divey bar where Gene and the bandmates often perform and do their drinking. When the guys listen to tapes or records of their jazz idols, sound designer Thomas Sowers segues from scratchy "live" recordings into gorgeous jazz that fills the theater. Cheryl Patton Wu's costume designs evoke the eras with minimal fuss but pinpoint accuracy - shirtwaist dresses on Terry and the short-sleeved '50s casual shirts on the guys.
Director Michael Dove has put together a fun trio of actors as Gene's jazz compadres: Sun King Davis as Al, a slouchy guy who fancies himself a ladies' man; Kevin Hasser as Ziggy, a comically edgy player; and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as the hipster Jonesy, a hopeless heroin addict. As Clifford explains to the audience, for guys such as these, you were "clean" if you just stuck to booze and weed. Jjana Valentiner has a nice been-there-done-that take on Patsy, the bar waitress.
The role of Gene is pretty central to the play, and Mancusi has Gene's quiet personality nailed but not his artist's dreaminess or sadness, which leaves a few scenes under-realized emotionally. Yet even with those caveats, 1stStage's production works. With Dove conducting the full ensemble, including Mancusi, this "Side Man" rarely misses a beat.