`Side Man' is compelling drama

Review: A musician's life is falling apart in this polished production of Warren Leight's 1999 Tony winner.

November 05, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Warren Leight's compelling 1999 Tony Award-winning play "Side Man" is about the family of a jazz trumpet player, a man as closely attuned to his music as he is out of tune with everything else in his life.

At Washington's Kennedy Center -- where the Broadway cast has taken up residence for most of this month -- Michael O'Keefe portrays the musician, whom the playwright calls Gene, in an almost perpetual daze. His hair is thinning, his middle thickening and his posture slightly stooped. But his eyes are the key to his character.

In a performance reminiscent of, though not quite as haunting as, that of his Tony-winning predecessor, Frank Wood, O'Keefe wondrously captures the out-of-focus look of someone who is either staring off into the distance or lost somewhere deep inside.

In other words, this is a man incapable of seeing what is right in front of him -- a wife plunging into alcoholism and madness and a son forced into premature adulthood so he can take care of his wildly dysfunctional parents.

But while Gene's focus is blurred, his son Clifford, the play's narrator and the playwright's alter ego, is almost preternaturally clear-sighted. Largely autobiographical, intricately layered and beautifully crafted, Clifford's story is a tale of devotion -- to art, to friends, to parents. It is also a play about all those psychology buzz words -- co-dependence, enabling, denial and, especially, coming to terms with the past and moving on.

Playwright Leight may appear to have sprung onto Broadway from nowhere, but his writing follows in the footsteps of several great American playwrights -- part Tennessee Williams, part Eugene O'Neill and, because he also writes about and in the style of jazz, part August Wilson.

For much of the play, which jumps back and forth from 1985 to 1953, Clifford is on the sidelines, leading us into flashbacks (some of which happened before he was born). He sets the play's tone by interacting with the characters and commenting to us about them in the same scenes. But Andrew McCarthy, the "Brat Pack" actor cast as Clifford, seems too snide and detached to be the stand-in for the sensitive playwright.

Clifford's sense of responsibility and loyalty have kept him from leaving his mother (Angelica Torn). And though he feels betrayed and ignored by Gene, his father, Clifford also admires the man's talent. McCarthy, however, conveys more irritation and sarcasm than loyalty and admiration.

Gene is a sideman, a musician whose versatility allows him to play backup or solo with equal finesse. The trouble is, the big jazz bands in which he and his fellow sidemen play are fading fast in the wake of rock and roll. "That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton," Jonesy, a trombone player, predicts after seeing Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

But Gene and his buddies aren't driven by ambition or fame. They just want to play their horns; they specialize in concocting strategies to work the minimum number of weeks necessary to collect the maximum unemployment. Gene's colorful cronies -- a gentle junkie (Kevin Geer), a self-styled lothario (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and a high-strung little guy with a lisp (Michael Mastro) -- may be musically adept enough to be sidemen, but they're ill-equipped to fit in anywhere else.

Former Marylander Michael Mayer has directed the production with the polished touch of an accomplished big-band leader. He knows how to modulate the dark and light tones that make up the play's distinctive mix of ironic humor, despair and forgiveness.

Music isn't performed live in this show, but plenty of it flows through the action, and in one revelatory scene, when three sidemen listen to a tape of the late Clifford Brown playing "A Night in Tunisia" on the night he died, music is the action.

"These guys are not even an endangered species anymore. It's too late," the narrator says. "When they go, that'll be it. No one will even understand what they were doing." Warren Leight understands, and he understands more than just sidemen. He understands the dangerously fragile state of the arts and the increasing tenuousness of the American family.

Last season, "Side Man" was the only new American play by a living playwright nominated for a Tony. Sidemen may be endangered, and American playwrights, too, but writing as strong as this cannot help but fill a theatergoer's heart with hope.

`Side Man'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Nov. 24 (no performance Nov. 25). Through Nov. 28

Tickets: $20-$65

Call: 1-800-444-1324

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