On the dilemma of the horns

`Side Man' themes get fair playing at Everyman


May 11, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Director Grover Gardner's production of Side Man at Everyman Theatre begins and ends with the sound of a jazz trumpet. We never see the trumpet played live on stage, but that doesn't matter. The instrument dominates the play.

In Warren Leight's largely autobiographical, Tony Award-winning play, the virtuoso horn-playing of the title character, Gene, is what first attracts his future wife, Terry. But Gene's obsession with the trumpet is also what eventually drives a wedge between them, sending her around the bend and forcing their young son not only to grow up before his time, but also to serve as parent to his parents.

Stephen F. Schmidt's pitch-perfect performance as Gene leaves no doubt that the trumpet is the center of his character's world. Schmidt portrays Gene as a man as hooked on playing the horn as his junkie trombonist buddy is hooked on drugs. By profession, Gene is a sideman - the term for a musician equally proficient at playing back-up or solo. But in real life, he can't even play back-up, he flounders on the sidelines.

Leight, who is the son of a jazz trumpet player, has structured his play like jazz. There are repeated themes and motifs, extended riffs and solos, and time is fluid. While Side Man has elements that will remind you of such esteemed American forebears as Tennessee Williams (the memory play) and Eugene O'Neill (the dysfunctional family play), it also introduced an important new voice to the American stage, one with a far-reaching purview.

Side Man isn't merely another look back at a warped American family, it's a cautionary look forward at the endangered status of the arts in America. Leight warns that just as sidemen became a thing of the past with the disappearance of the big bands, so are the arts in danger of being marginalized and overlooked. Despite a couple of inconsistent key performances in Everyman's local premiere production, this central theme makes an indelible impression.

The play is narrated by Gene's son, Clifford, portrayed as an adult, although the action shifts backward to his boyhood. Kyle Prue's depiction of Clifford has an exasperated quality that doesn't change much throughout the evening. Granted, it's easy to understand why a son would become exasperated, having to constantly clean up after parents who behave like nasty children. But Clifford also loves these two seriously flawed adults, and while Prue shows us Clifford's caretaker side, he doesn't show enough of his tenderness.

Deborah Hazlett's portrayal of Terry, Clifford's mother, is also uneven, beginning with the fact that she looks much more like a WASP-y, country-club type than a working-class Italian-American. Nor has Hazlett mastered Terry's ability as a chatterbox. When Gene meets her, Terry is supposed to be such a motormouth, she's almost unintelligible. This is intended to be a cute and endearing trait, and it's here that Hazlett misses an important opportunity to show us Terry's sweet side.

Hazlett is far more effective in the play's second half, when Terry's life is nearly lost to alcohol and mental illness. But by not letting us see the earlier, softer side of the character, the actress risks losing the audience's sympathy and appearing to be as much of a heavy as passive-aggressive Gene.

As Gene's fellow sidemen, Doug Brown, Nigel Reed and Bradley Thoennes convey a good sense of ensemble, but it is Rosemary Knower, as a big-hearted, oft-married waitress, who brings the most definition to a supporting role.

Dan Conway's set design constricts the action to three static playing areas, but almost makes up for this shortcoming by incorporating huge blow-ups of black-and-white photos of jazz men, as well as dingy cityscape projections, evocatively lighted by Jay Herzog. And, in a play about jazz, credit must also be paid to Neil McFadden's spot-on sound design.

In his coda to the play, Clifford describes his father and his cronies as "men who mastered their obsession." But in the end, these men were mastered - or more precisely, enslaved - by their obsession. And though Clifford, who manages to break free, gets to deliver the final speech, it's indicative of Everyman's overall grasp of the material that it's the trumpet that truly gets the last word.

Side Man

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 2

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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