Thursday, August 5, 2010
Requiem for a jazzman
The Banyan Theater's latest summer offering is Warren Leight's "Side Man." Basically, it's a play about a man who makes art and can't make a living at it.
The title character, Gene (Steve DuMouchel), is a very specific kind of artist creating a very specific kind of art -- he's a mid-20th century trumpet player; a pre-Bebop, pre-Rock, American jazzman; a sideman. The guy is a brilliant talent, but he has the practical sense of Rain Man. That hint of autism may be more than just a hint. Gene lives in the now. He writes himself notes to function. (Or his son writes them.) He won't fight to get credit for a solo he did on a critically acclaimed album because that's against the jazzman's code. He doesn't dig that the straight world cashes its checks on Friday. He doesn't dig the signals from his neglected wife, Terry (Roxanne Fay),that she's sliding from hurt to bitterness to suicidal madness. He just wants to play his horn.
Said facts are presented in flashbacks and first-person narrative by Gene's son, Clifford (Juan Javier Cardenas). There's a lot of inside baseball about the jazz scene back in the day. I figured it was either the playwright's direct experience or a ton of research. Turns out, it's experience. A memory dump. "Look Homeward, Jazz Angel" or "My Shitty Childhood and Welcome to It."
In plain English, Leight based his play on the memory of his own father -- trumpeter Donald Leight. If the story seems close to home, it is. Leight lived it.
Basically, the son recounts the slow, inevitable crack-up of his parents' marriage -- a living sacrifice on the holy altar of Jazz. Clifford's one of those good-natured kids who turn into the family psychotherapist, counselor, enabler and referee -- deprived of his own childhood because he's constantly trying to short-circuit the inevitable knock-down, drag-out fights of the two adults called mom and dad. In the end, Clifford can't hold it together. He winds up kicking his dad out of his house -- because it's either that, or send mom to the nuthouse.
All of which sounds like 200-proof misery. Surprisingly, the play keeps you laughing. But don't expect a comedy. The source of the play's music is love, loss and pain: the collateral damage that jazz (or the slow death of a certain kind of jazz) inflicted on the playwright's family. You may laugh. But you know you're laughing at a train wreck.
Leight's a good writer with an excellent ear for dialog. He's structured his play with the associational, contrapuntal rhythms of jazz. Present tense narrative turns into past tense scene; characters in the past interrupt the narrator; characters in different time frames finish each other's sentences. It be-bops along.
Director Jim Wise wisely goes with the flow. The scenes are crisp; the emotional core of each scene comes through loud and clear. He never milks the audience for sympathy. Like Altman, he gives you a sense of being a voyeur looking in on other people's lives.
Great performances from the supporting actors -- playing a pack of junkies, lost souls and freaks losing pieces of themselves in their eternal jazz pilgrimage. Cardenas finds just the right note for Clifford -- who could seem like an self-destructive Shmoo if not played right. Clifford's not Mr. Victim -- he has a good heart, is all -- and Cardenas successfully gets that across. Gene is basically an absent father even when he's there. He lives in the abstract, associational flow of the music in his mind, not the real world. DuMouchel (who occasionally reminded me of DeNiro) got that across as well. Fay had a particularly difficult role -- the mom who's constantly busting dad's balls. The deck of our sympathies is usually stacked in favor of the artist. It'd be easy to see Terry as a shrew -- and easy to hate her. Fay makes you sympathize with her character.
The playwright walks on cracked eggshells to never judge any of the characters -- especially Fay or Gene. He's as even-handed as Clifford; he never takes sides. But he never airbrushes the picture to make it pretty, either.
It's a poignant play with a narrow focus on a particular subculture -- the American jazz scene, 1940-1960 -- its mores, slang, attitudes and code. It's easy to map that culture to other kinds of art and artists. Leight himself never spells out those connections. That's not where his heart is.
His play is a requiem for his father and mother. It's a Proustian trip to a lost scene. Liner notes on a lost species: the post WWII American jazzman.
Like any good tune, the play keeps playing in your head long after the performance is over.
A Banyan Theater Company production
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota