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A strong monologue, very much like a steaming jazz solo, should always seem improvisational, even if it's not. Like music it moves and gathers momentum and in doing so, meaning. No long-winded plot summary or a pedantic sermon, the final monologue in GableStage's production of Warren Leight's Side Man does its job. It provides a final and necessary insight. Clifford (played by Oscar Isaac), the neglected son of a side man, or in layman's terms, a jazz musician, watches as his father Gene (played by Mark Shannon) cranks out a trumpet solo, what Clifford calls “burning brass.” Estranged from his father for several years and never having had a real relationship with him in the first place, Clifford takes in what will probably his last opportunity to see Gene play his instrument. His father is performing “I Remember Clifford”; he learns that his father plays this tune by Clifford's namesake at every gig. This scene is touching but not because we discover that someone who is a poor father can truly love his son. Leight's Tony-award-winning play is not about happy endings or saving graces. The beauty in the final monologue is Clifford's ability to see and appreciate his father doing the only thing he knows how to do -- make music. Clifford's dad feels closer to his trumpet than to his own son. There's no denying it. Gene is good at one thing. As his son marvels: “He's amazing. He hears a car horn and puts it in his drum solo.”
Side Man depicts two little-known arenas: the world of the jazz musician and the world of the jazz musician's family. Side men make a living picking up gigs, going from band to band. They didn't attain the fame of Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, but they battled the same demons: booze, drugs, a corrupt music industry, and economic hardship. Side Man gives a face to those men who helped performers like Frank Sinatra sound great. These men were virtuosos in their own right, and they played jazz just for the love of it. Through a series of smooth transitions narrated by Clifford, we move from 1985 back through the Seventies, Sixties, and Fifties, then back again to the Eighties. Like the classic point-counterpoint of jazz, these transitions add more depth to the script, lending a historical panorama to the lives of side men, from the Fifties, when they had gigs every night of the week, to the Eighties when they became an endangered species.
Through Clifford's narrative the not-so-lovely world of a jazz musician's family is poignantly revealed. If there's any question that a musician obsessed with his music is like a junkie with his fix, we have the answer by the end of Side Man. Clifford has the endearing, nondescript personality of the child of an alcoholic who is used to playing the role of an adult. As the street-smart waitress and band girlfriend Patsy (played by Ellen Rae Littman) comments: “You looked 30 when you were six, and now that you're 30 you look your age.” There are no dramatic resolutions in Side Man. Oscar Isaac plays his role accordingly; we see an underlying deterioration, a progressive lack of victory. No one comes along to realize Gene is a musical genius; nobody wants to record him for posterity's sake. The mother doesn't join a twelve-step program, she doesn't volunteer at a local homeless shelter, and Clifford does not unglue himself from the family mess to ride off into a happy mental health horizon.
A period piece that is well-done accomplishes this: It submerges the audience so that we are unaware that we are watching history. The GableStage production is such a piece. Warren Leight did his homework before writing the script. Heroin is called “horse.” Musicians use the word “chops” for lips, and divorce is illegal in the eyes of the Church, scandalous enough to drive a woman to a strange city as it does Terry, Clifford's mother (played by Judith Delgado). The design team at GableStage (costumes by Daniela Schwimmer and lighting by Jeff Quinn Scenic) has given this script a visually convincing environment.
Clifford is not only the narrator, but he is also the voice of reality in a world of dreams and chaos. It's no surprise that his tone is often sarcastic. At the beginning of their relationship, Terry and Gene decide to marry, and Gene promises her a glamorous wedding with “the works.” The scene ends with an embrace and Clifford steps in to recall what really happened: “So a week later, Mom made a lasagna and they got married in the apartment.” Throughout, understated testimonies like this one create a contrast of poignancy and humor.
For all of its dramatic potential, some situations in Side Man fall flat emotionally. Gene doesn't distinguish himself from his fellow musicians soon enough for us to grasp the gap between him and his son. It is only toward the end of the play that we begin to fully understand his inability to do anything but play music. Gene's role is difficult because his character is naturally distracted and emotionally distant. The drama could be more effective with Gene's persona revealed earlier in the play.
As Terry, Delgado captures an intriguing moment in history for women; during the late Fifties and early Sixties, women seemed neither independent nor submissive. In her youth Terry is the sort of Catholic girl from a working-class family who can say “motherfucker” five times in one sentence and still bowl you over with her naiveté. Delgado, no stranger to strong female roles (we have seen her outstanding portrayals of painter Frida Kahlo and fashion diva Diana Vreeland), is a master of throaty, gravelly, whiskey-laden rage, but in Side Man some of her rage seems uncontrolled. She moves without transition from being in love and eternally hopeful to being old and bitter. Since the play traces over three decades, more gradation in the characters of Terry and Gene would have offered more emotional depth to the play, yet together they are great. Their glaringly dissimilar personalities make Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus look like a case study of June and Ward Cleaver.
While at times funny and convincing as has-beens, Gene's fellow jazzmen Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy, (played by John Trapini, Kevin Reilly, and George Schiavone) sometimes miss their mark. They talk the talk and walk the walk, but something falls flat. This is apparent in the scene where they get hold of a bootleg tape of a great jazz solo and huddle around listening to it. They snap their fingers, punch each other in the arm, and trade comments, basically, a clichéd reaction. An audience wants to see something more, something that feels more real. There are moments, though, that do succeed, for example when Jonesy the junkie finds himself in jail.
The world of Side Man is a world of extinct creatures, but the emotions are very alive. The generally solid and strong performances throughout, particularly by Isaac and toward the end by Shannon, combined with vintage set design, costuming, and fine recorded music, can trick you for a little while into thinking you're in a classic New York jazz joint, not in a theater.