Warren Leight’s gorgeous, heart-shredding, darkly funny “Side Man” is most often described as an autobiographical memory play. And indeed, it takes the form of a son remembering his parents’ turbulent marriage against the backdrop of a jazz era whose days were numbered.
Yet in many ways Leight’s play might more accurately be called an extended elegy — at once a lament for the dead (the living dead, in this case), a wistful remembrance of an art form once vibrantly alive but then quickly rendered all but extinct (jazz), and a determined (if achingly ambivalent) statement about the absolute necessity of moving on. At once devastating and brutally honest, it taps into the crazy conjoining of tragedy and comedy that is life, and it does so with a mix of pain and inextinguishable affection.
When: Through May 24
Where: American Blues Theater at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $29 – $39
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
“Side Man,” a 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, is now receiving a white hot-revival by American Blues Theater, where a terrific cast, directed by Jonathan Berry (fresh off his work on Griffin Theatre’s “Balm in Gilead” revival, and newly appointed to the role of “artistic producer” at Steppenwolf Theatre), taps into the play’s fury, and thrives on the intimacy of the Greenhouse Theater Center stage.
The play begins with goodbyes as Clifford (Michael Mahler, whose beautifully tuned performance climaxes in an explosive scene you will not soon forget), a man of about 30 who has been the psychological caretaker of his parents since childhood, finally bids goodbye to them, leaving New York for the West coast.
He stops first at the shabby apartment where his mother, Terry (Kate Buddeke, who has completely crawled inside her character to stunning effect), has lived since she married his father, jazz trumperter Gene Glimmer (Michael Ehlers, who, with remarkable economy, suggests a man capable of tuning out in order to tune in). And then, after what has been a five-year separation, he drops in for what he hopes will be a last gasp connection with his emotionally absent father — a man whose real family has always been the rag-tag group of fellow musicians he has played with (and collected unemployment checks alongside) since the heyday of jazz in the 1940s and ’50s. His mother is still as mentally unstable as ever, and his father as awkwardly detached. But the longing in all three of them is unutterably potent.
Clifford’s look back is not so much “in anger,” as in profound sadness. We see how his parents met: The naive but previously married Italian Catholic girl struggling to play Debussy’s haunting “Afternoon of a Faun” on the flute hears her neighbor brilliantly riff on the piece. We watch as she meets his friends, including Jonesy (Joe Foust, the tragic clown who gets busted), Al (John Gawlik, the earthy clown), and Ziggy (Edward Kross, who has great fun with his character’s speech defect). The guys huddle in a booth at a rundown club and talk shop as Patsy (a sensational turn by Gail Rastorfer), the sassy, survivor-type waitres,with a penchant for marrying jazz musicians, cracks wise.
And then Terry becomes pregnant and gives birth to Clifford. By this time she has already realized that her dream of a normal family life is a total pipe dream, and that Gene is wed only to his music. She turns to alcohol, with hospitalizations for mental illness gradually becoming a way of life. And all through these years it is Clifford who tries to keep the lid on things, and who is suffused with an odd guilt that his birth was the cause of the whole calamity.
There are countless unforgettable scenes here, but the essence of the play can be summed up in just one, as Gene and his pals listen to a back room of a recording by Clifford Brown, the fabled jazz trumpeter who died in an accident at the age of 25. They are all in a trance. And in some real sense, all these side men have been in a trance throughout their chaotic, music-filled lives.