Riff Trade

Warren Leight's Side Man is both a perfect example of the American memory play and proof that a Broadway season filled with revivals and imports can produce a Tony win.

Side Man won that award last year, despite its rather old-fashioned narrative structure and at least partly because it wasn't up against much. Which isn't to say that Side Man isn't worthy of accolades: Its polished production at Arizona Theatre Company, acted by a superb cast and expertly directed by David Ira Goldstein, attests to the show's entertainment value and its durable characters. It's just that, rave reviews and honors notwithstanding, Side Man is not the most memorable play you'll ever see.

Developed by theaters in New York and quickly snapped up by regional companies across the country, Leight's largely autobiographical story spans three decades, moving from 1953 through 1985 with no particular linear rhythm. Side Man is narrated by Clifford (Liam Craig), a clean-cut, 30-year-old yuppie who recalls for us his parents' unfortunate marriage and his father's life as a jazz trumpet player. The play describes a particular time in American musical culture, when jazz and big-band music were being replaced by rock 'n' roll, but works best when it's focused on Leight's people, who fill his story with more life than the prerecorded trumpet solos that boost each act. That's partly because a story about a dying musical culture can't compete with the fascinating characters Leight has created.

Most notable among these folks is Crazy Terry, the mother in the story. Her delightful outbursts (nearly every one of them punctuated with the word "motherfucker," a fact that sent several oldsters fleeing for the lobby on opening night) and weepy entreaties are the glue that holds this sometimes rambling story together. Susan Cella gives a warm and persuasive performance that captures Terry's magnetic charm, then goes on to reveal the suffering and longing within. We see Terry transformed from a lively naïf to a shrewish drunk and, while it's horrible to witness her decline, it's impossible to look away.

At the center of the story is Joel Anderson as Clifford's father, Gene, the fanatically devoted jazzman whose horn means more to him than his wife or kid. Anderson's is a dazzling, controlled performance, equal parts restraint and passion, a perfect reading of a complex character who's both passionate about his music and passionless about his life.

Among the supporting players, Nicolas Glaeser is most memorable. As Jonesy, a junkie who never misses a gig, he's both stirringly funny and terribly pathetic. Glaeser's big scene, minutes before the first-act curtain, provides the evening's most riveting moments: Badly beaten and jonesing for a fix, the imprisoned junkie reveals that the police knocked out three of his teeth. "I don't know if I'll ever play again," he wails. And Terry McMahon, without any of the mannerisms we've come to expect from such a role, delivers a moving performance as the downtrodden party gal who snakes plaintively through the story's several decades.

Would that Leight's situations were as interesting as his people. Several scenes meander, and one of them stops dead as Genie and Clifford sit and listen to a solo by Clifford Brown. Too many exchanges concern the value of Claude Thornhill or the worthlessness of Lester Lanin, opinions that even a jazz hound might find tedious after a time. Some scenes have no conclusion; they merely end with a wisecrack by an exiting performer.

These truncated French scenes and the program's rapid, shifting time flow might have resulted in an untidy muddle under the care of a less talented director. Goldstein keeps the pacing and the sprawling story under tight rein, even using Gene's jazz buddies as stagehands who move Terry's furniture onto the stage or help one another into and out of costumes for flashback sequences.

The impressive pile of awards that Side Man claimed, along with its simple set design and easy characters, ought to lead to a long life playing regional theaters. And perhaps Leight, having scored a hit with his first play, will write another that marries his talent for characterization with a more compelling story.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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