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.