Warren Leight's play about the life of a down-at-the-heels jazz combo gets the new Broadway season off on a high but mournful note. If "Side Man" were a jazz number, it would be a slow, melancholy blues with occasional undertones of joy and exuberance.
Its arrival on Roundabout's stage is fitting recognition for one of the few distinguished new American plays to have emerged Off-Broadway last season.
"Side Man" is a memory play, enacted mostly in the mind of Clifford, a young man sifting through the wreckage of his parents' disastrous marriage. Preparing to leave New York, he calls to mind the terrible struggle between his father's devotion to the precarious life of a horn player, and his mother's need for home and family.
Leight imagines his jazzmen as a lost tribe, a civilization that flourished for a brief moment before it was swept aside by Elvis, The Beatles and television.
The writing is marked by a rare ability to move back and forth in time without ever losing focus. It's rich, too, in the variety of tones he manages to squeeze out of what is, at heart, a tragic story.
Leight does full justice both to the sordid side of the jazz world and to the moments of pure joy that the players experience when they "keep time so well it's stood still for them."
Unusually, too, Michael Mayer's production is even better on the large stage of the Roundabout than it was in the smaller CSC Theater.
The strengths of the original production are retained. The four members of the combo are evoked in splendidly vivid performances, with Kevin Geer especially memorable as the junkie Jonesy.
But Mayer also manages to make a good thing better. For one thing, the open space suits the stylized nature of the play and makes it easier for the actors to move between past and present.
And for another, the one cast change brings in the superb Wendy Makkena as the mother, Terry. This is the most difficult role in the play. While the men mostly drift along without really changing, Terry is gradually transformed from almost childlike innocence to raging, psychotic hatred.
Makkena handles this with precision, control and dignity. She disintegrates before our eyes, leaving the shattered core of a woman's hopes. The play becomes, much more clearly than it was before, an elegy for the life she never had.
It ends up doing what the best jazz players have always managed, making the voices of forgotten people sound out with a clarity that demands attention.
Ever since that young man strolled on to the set of Tennessee Williams' "A Glass Menagerie" and started to unfold his past like the figures in a carpet, the memory play has become an entrenched feature of the American theater.
And, yes, I suppose Warren Leight's "Side Man," which opened at the Roundabout Theater last night, is another example of a genre that has become almost overfamiliar, like the autobiographical novel or even the photo album of someone else's family in an alien place and at another time.
Yet "Side Man" is a memory play with a difference. For it is not simply the story of its first-person narrator, a young man called Clifford (Robert Sella), and his tortuous relations with his father, Gene (Frank Wood), mother, Terry (Wendy Makkena), and their circle, but also the story of a lost era in American popular music: the rise, decline and fall of the big bands, which Leight himself dubs their "50-year blip."
I wrote about this fascinating play when it was staged a few months ago by the Weissberger Theater Company at the CSC Rep, so this is little more than a note to warmly welcome this deserved and much appreciated transfer as the first offering of Broadway's 1998-99 season.
It gets the new season off to a rare whoosh of jet-propelled imagination. This truly is a play to conjure with, a play to hold you engrossed at the time, but then to offer you a reflective after taste, leaving you savoring, with nostalgic regret, the diminution of a peculiarly American art form.
At the play's center we have those universal variations on the all-American dysfunctional family. Dad's a disinterested, kindly obsessive. Mom's a doomed drunk, and the Kid plays umpire, ombudsman and general factotum/facilitator. The story is told with a tough kind of wary love.
But we also have the grainy, gritty background of the big band era, a picture of the life and times of the players, a reminiscence of bands like Claude Thornhill's, and an awed and loving tribute to the legendary Clifford Brown, the trumpeter killed in his mid-20s, an associate of the likes of Sonny Rollins and Max Roach.
What is so appealing about this double-whammy is the skillful manner - here Leight is helped all the way by Michael Mayer's seamless staging - in which the background of the dinosaur big bands facing rock, Elvis and The Beatles is fused with the totally convincing domestic drama of a young man regretfully choosing emotional exile.
As before, the acting - the cast is unchanged from off-Broadway apart from the addition of the perfectly melded Makkena as the mother - has the actuality of life about it. You cannot imagine these guys doing anything else but living in this play.
The 1998-99 Broadway cadenza has a long way to go. But if memories serve and justice gets its due, this play and these players should be around at Tony time next year.
Who knows? Perhaps the play will still be on Broadway, as well.
For evidence of how actors, given time and devotion, can grow in their roles, look no further than ''Side Man.''
Warren Leight's powerfully unsettling memory play has moved from Off Broadway to the Roundabout Theater, where it reopened last night, and where it has acquired the ineffable quality of something deeper, more penetrating. The memories dramatized here are those of Clifford (Robert Sella), a man recalling a treacherous childhood spent in the company of emotionally untrustworthy parents, and the itinerant jazz musicians whose world they all shared. It's an enormously moving play about the pleasure of music making, but also about the end of music, music that defined a way of life and filled a boy's heart. What happens when the music stops is so sad, it may have you in tears.
Under the sensitive direction of Michael Mayer, who with ''A View From the Bridge'' demonstrated a lively intuition for the dramatic currents in postwar working-class America, ''Side Man,'' set in the same period, demands that attention be paid to Mr. Leight's marginal people and their carelessly arranged lives. Part situation comedy, part wistful family drama, the play occasionally gets stuck in idle, especially toward the meandering end of the first act.
Ultimately, though, ''Side Man'' is vindicated by the pure feeling it arouses and the wonderful, true-to-life characters it depicts, each as pain-racked and joyful as the blues.
The play has not been appreciably altered in the transfer to Broadway. If anything, it looks and sounds better than in its earlier incarnation this spring at the Classic Stage Company's theater on East 13th Street. Neil Patel's moody, impressionistic set and Kenneth Posner's blazingly effective lighting gain in personality on a larger stage; Mr. Posner's spectacular design for the play's centerpiece scene, in which three jazz musicians swoon silently to the recording of an intoxicating trumpet solo, is an example of how a light board can illuminate the soul.
The cast, save one actress in a central role, remains the same, and the performances have transferred even more successfully than the trappings. The portrayals are looser and more fluid, flowing more freely into the nooks and crannies of the characters' idiosyncrasies. This crisper attack is most profound in the work of Michael Mastro, Joseph Lyle Taylor and Kevin Geer, who play the roguish trio of musicians who share gigs and unemployment with Clifford's father, Gene (Frank Wood); think of a Scarecrow on bass, a Tin Man on drums and a Cowardly Lion on horn.
Mr. Mastro, in particular, is a comic wiz as Ziggy, a jazz nerd in horn-rimmed glasses who doesn't allow his speech impediment to get in the way of a good riposte. His sharp comebacks are in the best wise-guy tradition of Bob Hope's road movies. Angelica Torn, playing a hotblooded waitress with a short-order philosophy about romance, makes an even warmer impression than she did downtown; she's the mother Clifford should have had.
''Side Man'' counts on these accomplished players for comic relief. ''What do you do when an ex-junkie compliments you on your veins?'' Clifford asks us after the goateed Mr. Geer peruses Clifford's arm and exclaims, ''Nice rope!'' In such moments, the play authentically captures the language and customs of the breed of jazzmen who reigned in nightclubs in the 1950's and early 60's. But it is a feeling of letdown, not uplift, that dominates the play, in the story of the declining fortunes of these men and the breakdown of the marriage of Clifford's parents.
Music is the connective force among the stories, the force that binds the jazzmen even as it destroys the family. Gene, the nearly invisible father, more wedded to his beloved horn than to his wife, Terry (Wendy Makkena), drives her to drink and the brink of madness with his inattention.
The enigmatic Gene is Mr. Leight's most original creation, the one he named the play for. Gene is by trade a side man, the sort of all-around musician who can fill any role required of him and his trumpet. That someone so solidly designed for backup could lend so little in his domestic life is the tragic dimension of ''Side Man.'' Gene remains in the background, a position that works for him in a jazz combo, where contributions are meant to mix, but is a miserable role for a husband and father. It's left by default to Clifford to raise himself, and, impossibly, to try to impose some order on his lost parents.
Moving forward and back in time -- the play spans the years 1953 to 1985 -- Clifford relates the story of his family on the day of a reunion with his father after years of noncommunication. (Estrangement is too strong a term to apply to such a passive relationship.) Mr. Sella narrates with an almost stoic detachment that belies Clifford's pent-up anger, but it's a neutral posture that befits his predicament. Clifford doesn't choose sides in this war because neither, he knows, is a winning one.
Mr. Sella is now a stronger, more affecting presence in the difficult role of narrator. His character is at once open and remote: definitely his father's son.
As other cast members, particularly Ms. Torn and Ms. Makkena, do, he time-travels adroitly, applying and stripping away his character's years. And he's a touchingly tentative 10-year-old, trying to keep peace in the household by slipping his father a few dollars to buy his mother some liquor, or trying to emulate his father by shadow-trumpeting to a jazz LP with him. Shadows are all he gets to see.
Ms. Makkena, the newcomer in the cast, replacing the superb Edie Falco, who had other professional commitments, has a tough assignment, too. Terry is a hysteric who is seen mostly in stages of rage, furious at the hoax of a marriage into which she has fooled herself. Though too quick to shrillness in her tirade scenes, she's lovely in the quiet moments of Terry's youth and old age, before and after Gene's terrible blankness smothers the gentler aspects of her nature.
Then there is Mr. Wood, who finds some far-away island in his imagination and takes about three-quarters of his attention there. It's an artfully distracted performance -- he really does appear to hear the beat of that different drummer -- that makes Gene's disregard for anything but the music seem a virtue. Benign neglect rarely looks so forgivable.
Mr. Leight's subtle character-driven work is an anomaly on Broadway, the sort that Tony voters rarely get a look at anymore. The event here is simply the excellent writing and the equally memorable acting and stagecraft. Good for the Roundabout for recognizing a tide, and swimming in the other direction.
In Warren Leight's "Side Man," the first Broadway opening of the new season, a jazz musician's beloved trumpet becomes the instrument of his family's destruction. Leight's comic and melancholy memory play, a transfer from Off Broadway under the helm of busy director Michael Mayer, is an affecting, vividly drawn picture of the domestic tragedies that were the ripple effects of a dying business that also happened to be an art form.
"Side Man" unfolds through the eyes of Clifford (Robert Sella), the only child of trumpeter Gene (Frank Wood), and it begins at the end, as Clifford makes final visits to his father and mother Terry (Wendy Makkena) -- separately, he assures us with a wry smile -- before leaving New York for parts west.
Dad's playing a gig at a bar whose luster has long since dimmed, and Mom's still smoking herself into oblivion in her housecoat, asking wary questions that reveal the lingering vestiges of her love for her ex-husband, the "rat bastard."
The ache that fuels Clifford's tour through his family's fractious domestic history is the haunting belief that it was his birth that soured his parents' marriage, and Serra's ingratiating, unself-consciously moving performance quietly suggests that the humor Clifford brings to his examination of his family's fate is born of considerable pain. The shine in his eyes could be equally emotion or amusement at the memory of his father's friends' antics.
Jumping haphazardly back in time, Clifford recalls key moments in his life, such as the day in 1977 when, fresh out of college, he picked up his first unemployment check, and was welcomed into the brotherhood of man by his dad and his bandmates Al (Joseph Lyle Taylor), Ziggy (Michael Mastro) and Jonesy (Kevin Geer). By then they had come to rely on government assistance to keep plying their ever-less-lucrative trade.
Delving into a past when glamour -- and a modicum of financial viability -- still clung to the lifestyles of itinerant band musicians, Leight's play gives us funny and piquant snapshots of the jazz milieu, a world whose denizens lived proudly outside the bounds of 9-to-5 respectability. For them, capitulation to the lures of the "straight" world -- the regular paychecks, the mortgage, the security -- was akin to death, and newlywed Terry and Gene's apartment gradually comes to be decorated in "early American divorce," as the marriages of everyone else in their circle disintegrate almost instantly.
The advent of Elvis -- whom the gang watches with grim, grudging admiration on "Ed Sullivan" -- gradually leads to the demise of the big band circuit that was the bread and butter for horn players, but Gene ignores Terry's demands that he give up music for a more steady job, even when she threatens to kill him and the unborn Clifford. For Gene, who can recite jazz arcana but won't remember his son's birthday, music is not his job, it's his life.
Leight, who was indeed the son of a jazz side man, is sympathetic to Gene's steadfast adherence to his music, but doesn't shy away from showing the corrosive effect it had on his family. For Gene and his mates, music was a drug no less addictive -- and destructive -- than the heroin Jonesy also indulged in, which ruined his life the way an incurable jones for jazz would ultimately claim Terry and Gene's marriage.
The play's jokey comedy sometimes lends an outlandishness that gives a melodramatic edge to later, more tragic developments. Ultimately it may detract from its emotional appeal, a problem that Mayer's direction colludes in: Many of the performances seem slightly overripe, perhaps a problem of adjustment from the show's previous, smaller space to the more capacious Roundabout Stage Right.
Wood's diffident Gene is a character defined more by small tics -- the mouth gaping in what could be a smile or a grimace, the distant look in the eyes, the nervous whinny of a laugh -- than anything deeper. He comes off a little too much like a horn-tooting, live-action Homer Simpson. (His emotional absence from his family is of course one of Leight's points, but Gene's passion for his music must be taken on faith.)
Gene's wife and cohorts also have cartoonish aspects that sometimes give short shrift to their humanity: Makkena's Terry devolves rather suddenly from strident naif to shrewish, crazed harridan, managing to remain just a shade short of caricature.
Still, cartoonish or not, these figures do linger in the memory, like so much smoke you can't clear out of a room, and the play's final moments are intensely sad, as Clifford seeks one last time to make a connection to his father, whom he hasn't seen in several years. "How could he sense everything when he was playing, and nothing when he wasn't?" Clifford wonders at one point, and as his gesture toward communion goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, Kenneth Posner's sharp lighting closes in on Clifford alone, and the tragedy of a family that has become three solitary figures hits home.