Biographical Bebop

Review: Side Man

There's so much that's right about Warren Leight's Side Man, currently playing at Gorilla Theatre, I can't help but feel churlish in wanting to point out what's missing. Still, truth be told, this much-admired Tony award-winning play provides only a somewhat satisfying experience, and the problem isn't only in Gorilla's mostly agreeable production.

To put it bluntly, this is a script that's honest without being incisive, that answers every "what" while seldom offering a "why." And the result is that one feels, after seeing the play, both pleased and disappointed, conscious that the playwright has been unusually candid and also curiously unenlightened about the subjects of his candor. If tell-all autobiography is enough for you, you'll probably be happy with the confessional authenticity of Side Man. But if you want to go deeper — to the truth beyond the facts, to the philosophy or psychology that makes a work of art relevant to every member of its audience — I'm afraid you won't find these levels of meaning in Side Man.

What you will find is a memory play, narrated by Clifford Glimmer, and focusing mostly on his father, Gene — a talented jazz trumpeter — and his temperamental, alcoholic mother, Terry. Also important are Gene's fellow side men: Al the Don Juan, Jonesy the heroin addict and prankish, mischievous Ziggy. Moving back and forth in time between 1953 and 1985, Side Man tells us of two declines: the fall of jazzmen like Gene after the advent of Elvis and the Beatles; and the fall of Terry Glimmer into suicidal self-hatred and madness.

Fluidly and with great economy, Clifford shows us how his parents first met, how they decided to marry (he got her pregnant), how Terry became increasingly cantankerous and then actually insane and how it finally fell upon Clifford to demand that his father leave his mother. He also tells some other brief stories: about his first unemployment check, Terry's first encounter with an orgone box, Jonesy getting beat up by some cops who were interrogating him, and various anecdotes about jazzmen famous and otherwise.

And through it all, Leight emphasizes one and only one psychological point: that Gene Glimmer, like the other jazzmen, is only truly focused on life when he's playing, talking about or listening to jazz. Other possible subjects — the terrible burden placed on a child by unbalanced parents, the reasons for Terry's alcoholism and madness, the artist as outsider in American culture, the difficulty of memory itself when the subject is so painful — are left unexplored, mentioned perhaps in passing and then dropped or not noticed at all. We enjoy or are troubled by Clifford's recollections, come to understand something about the passing of an era, and then the play is over. Is that all there is?

Making the play's absences a little more problematic is Jon Van Middlesworth's performance as Clifford. He is a talented actor whom I've often praised in this space, but he exudes a kind of ingenuous sincerity that's all wrong for this particular survivor. Leight talks in his stage directions about the adult Clifford's "ironic detachment," but Van Middlesworth never takes an ironic distance from his subject, just as he never seems truly threatened by any of the events that he describes.

Steven Clark Pachosa is wonderful as Gene, though, happily enthusiastic when jazz is being discussed and mostly untouched by everything else that goes on around him. Jennifer Neumann as Terry Glimmer is distressingly credible when raging against her husband and son, and Tony Valantine as Jonesy gives one of his best performances as a junkie who thinks of his addiction as material for small talk. As Gene's easily self-amused pal Al, Louis Greto gives a flawless performance and Jason Vaughan Evans as bandmate Ziggy is likable though his vocal delivery is occasionally too garbled. Finally, Angela Bond is just right in the small but ingratiating part of waitress and serial paramour Patsy.

Director Nancy Cole nicely manages to keep the action as swift as Clifford's ability to remember, and sound designer Sean Sanczel treats us to some fine jazz excerpts, including Clifford Brown's solo in "A Night in Tunisia."

The set is another story. The problem that any designer of the narrowly rectangular Gorilla space has to address is how to create depth when the distance from upstage to downstage is barely a few feet. This problem was notably unsolved in The Glass Menagerie a couple of months ago, and it's just as disturbingly unanswered by Patricia England's set for Side Man. England's first mistake is to further reduce the apparent dimensionality of the stage by painting everything one color — black. She then goes on to lose our credulity by isolating one central set piece — an unconvincing leopard skin lounge seat — under a small cluster of photos of jazz players, as if these snapshots and this bit of furniture should be enough to transport us to jazzland. Of course, they don't; the furniture and the photos are overwhelmed by the mostly empty black walls, and the ultimate effect is of shallow abstraction, not smoky reality. As a result, Clifford's memories also seem shallow; and we noticeably miss the feel of the garish clubs and cramped band rooms, the psychological as well physical locales of a jazzman.

And still the production succeeds much of the time. Leight's writing is pleasingly direct, the subject is original and acting like Pachosa's and Greto's is a pleasure at every moment. If Side Man isn't quite the masterpiece that some critics have called it, still it's a moving and literate act of autobiography, a demonstration that the theater can handle memoir as well as any other art form. So you won't be blown away by the show's astonishing insights; but you'll be entertained, informed and, a few times, moved.

Maybe that's reason enough to be glad about this Side Man.

Longjohns, No Briefs. Due to lack of space, Stageworks won't have its 10-minute play Briefs competition this year. However, the Longjohns contest — to determine which two or three full-length plays will get a reading in the coming theater season — is still going on. Send plays, along with $10 submission fee, to Stageworks Longjohns 2002, 120 Adriatic Ave., Tampa, FL 33606. Deadline is June 30; written notification will go out on Sept. 30. Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] planet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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