Side Man - Warren Leight - Jason Priestley - Edie Falco - Apollo Theatre
On 11 April 2000 I was at the Apollo theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, to see “ Side Man” by Warren Leight, a saga of the jazz age: a Broadway tragic-comedy about Gene (Frank Wood) a jazz trumpeter who puts all his sensitivity into his instrument and not much into his brawling marriage. The play caused a big stir on Broadway. But for all this, he is always a sideman, never a star as he lacks both presence and ambition.
Jason Priestley as Gene’s son Clifford loiters on the sidelines as narrator and sympathetic witness to his parents (Gene and Terry) hot and cold war. He cuts a handsome presence but makes little impact.
Edie Falco as Terry, Gene’s neglected wife (what would be called a “jazz widow”) succumbs to rage and grief which her husband ignores. The author seems torn between presenting the story of American jazz-makers in the last 40 years and a blow-by–blow account of a failing marriage. He seems unable to find a link between the nomadic life of jazz musicians with its temptations of drugs, drink and women and the collapse of Gene’s marriage.
Neil Patel’s unatmospheric cheap-looking set contributes little to the proceedings with just a facade for Gene’s house, a few bar-stools and a circular table.
Clifford tells the story of his parents’ strange meeting, marriage and separation. His mother, Terry – a boisterous, shrill, fast-talking girl from Baltimore, blows Gene’s own trumpet, so to speak, and admires his musical prowess before hustling him into bed. “Everyone was happy before I was born “ is Clifford’s observant and rueful comment.
Frank Wood, as Gene, acted impressively, ambling though life like some long distance sleepwalker, observing his marriage’s downhill as if he had no role to play in it. Raucous and drunk, hurling plates and insults at the husband who never shows interested hands upon her, Edie Falco briefly lights up the stage. Her heavy smoking, hard-swearing performance energises the whole play. Her moments of alcoholic and emotional collapse are charged with raw, ungainly emotion. But Priestley’s Clifford, witnessing his parents from childhood to adulthood, doesn’t seem to suffer much, even when he finally evicts his father from his own home. There is a parallel with the ageing jazz band and Clifford’s ageing mother. Jonesy (Kevin Geer) the cool, druggy one of their number ends up unable to use his mouth musically after his teeth are kicked in by policemen and he goes to jail, and the band are convinced that rock’n’roll will be the death of them. Sadly, Michael Mayer’s production fails to draw all these elements into a dramatic whole.
The play covers the period between 1953 and 1985 and the musicians in the play all have their own characteristics: Michael Maestro’s Ziggy has a lisp, Jeff Binder’s Al is ladies’ man, Kevin Geer’s Jonesy is a junkie. The band hang out at a local dive where Patsy, the waitress, (played with husky good humour and cuteness by Angelica Torn) turns out to be a serial of jazz-musicians!
Nobody actually plays any jazz in the play but there are memorable recorded snatches from greats such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The play closes with Gene miming in silhouette while his son pays a last tribute to a dying art: “they kept time together so well, that for them it stood still” and so passed them by. He weeps into a slow-fading spotlight.