Perhaps you've heard: Interplayers is presenting yet another play with a youthful narrator figure who's tortured by memories of his parents' bickering. This time, the crumbling of the dysfunctional family mirrors the decline of an American art form, jazz. Why spend good money just to get depressed?
Sure, management cleverly booked this gig to coincide with the 20-hour Ken Burns mega-documentary on PBS, so we can all pride ourselves on our knowledge of bebop while watching the onstage squabbles. But surely we've all seen this kind of dreariness before.
Don't you believe it. Take the A train downtown some night soon, because Director Robert Welch and his ensemble of actors have fashioned a riveting evening out of Warren Leight's Side Man. It's about the collateral damage caused by the sacrifices we make while pursuing our dreams, but it has the good sense to undercut any potential sentimentality with humor.
The side man of the title is Gene Glimmer, who ekes out a living by blowing his trumpet in a supporting role for "various forgotten big bands." As with all the other guys in the horn section, society's indifference to jazz has marginalized him, pushed him aside, turned him into a mere side man.
Welch's cast throws itself into its roles persuasively. As an example, consider the scene of which Leight says he's most proud. Three guys from the horn section sit around and listen to a bootleg tape of an exhilarating trumpet solo. For over three minutes, almost wordlessly, we're invited into their realm of jazz appreciation. While the scene presents a challenge -- it's theater without any real action -- Welch has guided his trio of actors into an engaging visual anecdote. From the grinning, open-mouthed wonder of Al (Barzin Akhavan), to the foot-tapping involvement of Jonesy (Scott Campbell), to Tim Kniffin's choice, as Gene, to twirl on his back in orgasmic astonishment at the sheer ear-challenging inventiveness of Clifford Brown's solo, we are compelled to see just why these men are willing to throw away the rest of their lives for a chance at making music.
A consistent strength of Side Man is its intermingling of happy and sad moments. For example, at the peak of one family screaming match -- clearly a battle that has been fought before -- Clifford, the son and narrator-figure, breaks into the violence with "Every family needs its rituals." When, in a flashback, Gene shares with his 10-year-old son that same amazing trumpet solo, the play's almost only moment of father-son playfulness and intimacy is shattered by the shouted badgering of his alcoholic wife, Terry (Christina Lang).
There's also an early scene in which four musicians carouse at their favorite hangout and swap stories of drug addiction, career failure, friends' destroyed lives. They laugh at their own jokes, and the play invites us to follow suit. Their language is raw, as if to challenge us: Are we going to be angered more by the cursing or by the sad spectacle of these men's drug-riddled, failing lives? But the whole time, in the background, one of Gene's soothing trumpet solos plays softly, and we see why these men are willing to forgo all the usual respectable middle-class comforts. They sacrifice security for what, to them, is sacred -- the inventiveness of the soloist riffing on a tune. We can laugh at their foibles because they are dedicated to their craft.
Still, hearing a pretty continual stream of profanities onstage -- Lang's tempestuous Terry, the Italian wife twice disappointed in love, is particularly adept with the billingsgate -- is different from reading them privately on the page. I found myself, as with nearly any David Mamet play, very conscious of my fellow playgoers' reactions. Would they sit, shades of John Ashcroft, in stony silence? The opening night audience, to its credit, did not; they accepted that musicians with drug habits and screaming alcoholic wives probably let loose with just this kind of language, and concentrated instead on how the Glimmer family clung to its good humor even as they declined along with the jazz world.
As the mother who is starstruck and then disillusioned by Gene, Lang seemed unfit for the early courtship scenes. But she is hampered, it's only fair to say, by Leight's script, which strains credulity in depicting Terry as both an innocent and a foul-mouthed cynic. In the play's second half, however, when Lang is called upon to slouch into one drunken harangue after another, she gives a terrific and even frightening performance.
As Clifford the narrator, Paul Munson is often too frenetic, trying too hard to sell the audience on the funny side of his memories. Munson, however, is particularly good at depicting the small boy who's fallen into the role of peacemaker between two warring parents. Gene, the father, is renowned among his buddies for how slowly and aimlessly he wanders through life; as played by Kniffin, the habit becomes a metaphor for the massiveness of his denial. As his son relates in an emotional farewell, it is almost inconceivable how aware Gene could be onstage -- and at the same time, in real life, how oblivious.
Side Man has important things to say about the personal costs of chasing after beauty. The man who remembers the man with the horn wants you to come sit in for a session. Go ahead and join the boys in the band.