Michael Dove’s direction and nearly flawless casting of Side Man makes for a terrific production at 1st Stage. Playwright Warren Leight captures the flair and style of the jazzy big band era as seen through the experiences of the “side man,” a jazz term for a freelance musician who can just as easily solo as play back-up as needed.
Patrick Bussink plays Clifford, the narrator and son of the two main characters, with depth and striking appeal. Clifford opens the show, introduces the characters at their later stages, relates what happened when his parents met, and is the trusty guide interpreting all the emotional gyrations and turmoil of their nearly thirty year marriage which started crumbling soon after the “I-Do”’s.
Bussink’s command of his character is a work of art and is reason enough to see the show. He is just as believable playing a youngster surviving in a dysfunctional household as he is an adolescent taking on way too much responsibility trying to help his emotional wreck of a mother, and negligent musician father. The father, Gene Glimmer (Chris Mancusi) is the lead Side Man, but his role is overshadowed by the powerful casting of Bussink and Lee Mikeska Gardner as wife Terry Glimmer—the combination of those two knocks down everything else in its path. Mancusi’s timid approach to his character, in contrast, never stands a chance.
The role of Terry Glimmer, originated by Edie Falco, before she became all that in “The Sopranos”, plumbs the depth of emotions, from innocent Shirley Temple drinking ingénue, to blushing bride, to protective mom, to raging emotionally disturbed wife, to hapless drinker. She’s a hellified character that will push any actress to the brink of maudlin sensationalism, but in the capable hands of Helen Hayes Award winner Gardner, each line, and all emotional twists and turns are delivered with authenticity and script is well served.
Less so, however, by Mancusi playing the Dad, Gene Glimmer. A capable actor in other roles, his portrayal of this character required a nuance that he just could not deliver. His opening was acceptable early in the first act, but as the circumstances evolved and became complex, his character didn’t reflect any impact. At the crucial moment when his son confronts him, Clifford seems to age several years in those moments as he rears himself up to protect his mother’s sanity and well being. Thrown out of the house, with no where to go, Gene exits gently as if he’s heading out for groceries. There was just not enough heft to show what was going on beneath the lines. Also, a minor incident with mishandling the trumpet didn’t help; he placed it down carelessly, only to have it wobble and fall over, while in the next scene, he halts his wife from touching it as if it was sacred. Sure, props fall, but to keep the magic of the moment, the trumpet has to be considered God’s instrument, and has to be treated as such.
A masterful trio of buds reflects the kaleidoscope of a jazz man’s life – always hungry for the next gig, (and also often literally so), the sacrifices made to stay in the life, and throughout it all, the true appreciation for the art. Keen direction by Dove helps stratify each of the characters with the long striding Sun King Davis as Al who keeps up a terrific energy, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as the strung out, yet irrepressible Jonesy, and Kevin Hasser as Ziggy who brings a zany twist to his portrayal. Finally Jjana Valentiner as dependable barmaid Patsy listens with passion and tender-hearted care, while vulnerable to any and all expressions of love and romance, no matter what the consequences.
Set design by Steven Royal is as sparse as a Lincoln five dollar bill on rent day with small tables along the periphery of the stage to get across a night club setting, and characters bringing in furnishings as needed.
Sound designer Thomas Sowers channels some terrific old Blue Note jazz numbers and even accomplishes something that looks easier than it really is, starting a jazz instrumental number on a monotone old reel-to-reel, then smoothly amplifying it to exquisite modern acoustical sound, then returning to the early version in the span of a few moments. That’s an example of the artistry for which 1st Stage is becoming known and getting well deserved praise.
The script is a fascinating peek at a time that’s ebbing away faster than we can say digital sound track. The time ebbs and flows through the decades like a jazzy riff while the all consuming role of music in the lives of jazz artists is refracted through a once-promising musician who missed his claim to fame.
This homage to the old-school artists is a treasure, especially the priceless moment of hushed silence while listening to a recording of the inimitable Clifford Brown, namesake for Terry and Gene’s son. Listen, read a few lines about his short-life, and appreciate how pure genius can come from a trumpet. Then thank 1st Stage for bringing these shining moments to life.
Side Man runs thru April 22, 2012 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road McLean, VA
by Warren Leight
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission