What is Side Man about? A young man, the narrator Clifford, finding his way out of a dysfunctional family into independence. "There are no clean breaks," he tells us; and then he tells us about his parents and his childhood to try to finagle one anyway. Side Man is about perspective, about struggling to understand one's parents; about, more importantly, finding a way to forgive them. Clifford's father Gene, a jazz band sideman who only comes alive when he is playing music, is an emotional cripple; his mother Terry, a bright woman who allows herself to self-destruct inside a doomed marriage, is an emotional wreck. Clifford, at once the raison d'etre and stablizing influence in this unhappy family, grows old far too soon, coping with his father's eccentricity and his mother's hysteria.
Terry eventually literally goes crazy; in a way, her need for constant care from her son bonds her to him. It is absent Gene whom Clifford must come to terms with before making his break; Side Man is a portrait of him. Gene is a sideman, a world-class one, meaning that he can play in any band and blend in perfectly. His improvisations are sublime, his trumpet solos are magic. He breathes music. And he withdraws, emotionally and intellectually, from just about every other aspect of life. Yet we learn that, in his later years, after he has more or less been banished from the family, he plays a song called "I Remember Clifford" at every single gig.
Those gigs are an important part of Gene's life and consequently this play; Side Man is also, finally, a valentine to a profession that has become extinct. Gene and his fellow musicians--nerdy Ziggy, womanizing Al, and hip junkie Jonesy--are the last of their kind, rendered obsolete by rock & roll and television. While they lived and worked, though, they were ageless: Clifford tells us that they kept time so well that time seemed to stop for them.
Nothing I write will ultimately do justice to this miraculous play: Mr. Leight's blend of nostalgia, memory, pain, humor, sweetness, and understanding is too layered and too deep to adequately convey here. It's also superbly constructed, and beautifully written, with language that is as unexpectedly wise as it is evocative of time and place. Director Michael Mayer has staged this work flawlessly, and it looks even better on the stage of the John Golden Theatre than it did at the Roundabout. Neil Patel's impressionistic sets, Tom Broecker's simple but savvy costumes, and Kenneth Posner's atmospheric lighting all serve the play well.
The performances, with one exception, are superb. Christian Slater has now joined the cast as Clifford; he does a fine job, especially in a lovely scene in which, as a ten-year-old version of himself, he shares a sweet, brief moment of happiness with his dad. Michael Mastro, Joseph Lyle Taylor, and Kevin Geer offer stalwart support as, respectively, Ziggy, Al, and Jonesy. Angelica Torn is a warm and reassuring presence as Patsy, a shrewd and compassionate waitress who makes a habit of marrying horn players. (Wendy Makkena, as Terry, is doing some shameless overacting, however, reducing moments that should be heartfelt to mere schtick; her work is the only jarring note in an ensemble that is otherwise splendidly in tune.)
First among equals, though, is Frank Wood, whose towering portrayal of Gene sits at the center of Side Man, a feat all the more remarkable given Gene's distinct lack of character. Mr. Wood and Mr. Leight feel to me like soulmates: here is a rare but perfect union of actor and role that is a privilege to witness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene that comes midway through Side Man's second act, in which we get our only real glimpse into Gene's private world. At a gig late one night, Al shows up with a tape of a legendary performance by another brilliant trumpet player by the name of Clifford Brown. We watch Mr. Wood's Gene as he listens, enraptured, his fingers embracing an invisible instrument in time to the music. Somewhere in the middle of this dazzling sequence, we become aware that Gene has gone someplace else, to a private place inhabited by just himself and his passion. We--and Clifford--can never get there. But at least, at last, we almost understand.