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Man of the house

Unicorn Theatre's Side Man masterfully examines a how one man's love for jazz affects his dysfunctional family.

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In jazz parlance, a side man is the guy in a band positioned just outside the glare of the spotlight. Side men are talented but not famous, remarkable but anonymous -- and a dying breed. In Warren Leight's Tony Award-winning Best Play of the 1998-'99 season, Side Man, now given a marvelous production at the Unicorn Theatre, four of the men have their two hours in the beam. It's not pretty.

Gene (David Fritts) and his cronies fill the tiny, all-but-extinct New York jazz clubs that prospered in the 1950s and '60s. Jonesy (Kyle Mowry) is the scarred mascot whose liaisons with the needle are so nonchalant they're almost humorous. Ziggy (Scott Cordes) is the class clown whose speech impediment makes him an easy target. And Al (Shawn Halliday), the most sketchy of the bunch, is the kind of team player who is remembered (if at all) for being dutiful.

But Leight focuses on Gene and his disturbed wife, Terry (Cheryl Weaver), telling their story through the eyes of their son, Clifford (Greg Jackson), whose theme song both figuratively and literally is "Why Was I Born?" Clifford's decision at the top of the play to visit the father he hasn't seen in five years propels the flashback that is the bulk of the tale. Through the magic of dramatic license, he is on stage as he and we watch the uneventful courtship turn into the lifeless, brutal marriage from which Clifford emerges mercifully unscathed.

If there's a sweet coming-of-age quality inherent in Clifford's autobiographical narration, Leight isn't having any of it. Though the play is terribly moving, the boy's nostalgia isn't created from charming old Life magazines. His parents should never have stayed together, much less brought a child into the picture. Gene and Terry suck the life out of each other, and while Gene fills the void with music, Terry isn't so resourceful. Alcohol becomes her substitute for the warmth her side man can't supply.

Two passages in the play catapult it from a respectable, good work to one that's semi-great, and one's as painful as the other is joyous. The first opens Act Two, where Clifford is 10 years old and depends on himself to get fed. Terry, in turn, depends on him to keep her and the house together. His father jams all night and sleeps all day, and his mother is awash in booze and spite, so Clifford's the man of the house by proxy. For him, a regular afternoon is pulling Terry off a window ledge in what is surely one in a series of superficial suicide attempts. Clifford survives -- miraculously -- and what makes the play so heartbreaking is that millions of kids out there are just like him.

The second such passage is a tour de force involving Gene, Ziggy, Al, and Roger Stoddard's skilled sound design. Al has found a bootleg recording of a reputed masterpiece of horn-blowing, caught in a smoky club some years before. To the side men, it's their Shroud of Turin, and as they escape into the track, the play is caught up in their reverie. Stoddard begins the track as it would really sound coming from the cheap tape player they use, and then he gradually increases both the volume and the quality of the recording. For Gene, the tape is a mixed blessing; it's the high point of an artistic résumé that is not his own.

Theodore Swetz directs Side Man with great respect for the jazz genre and with a social worker's knowledge of child neglect. Without the Broadway budget that allowed that production a large apartment, Swetz instead has his actors bring on the furniture themselves at the precise moment Terry decides she and Gene will cohabitate. It's moving day, and Gene isn't capable of stopping it in its tracks.

The only characters that aren't misshapen and flawed are Clifford and Patsy (Molly Jo McGuire), a waitress at a bar and grill that has been the side men's oasis for two decades. McGuire and Jackson are also the most inexperienced players and, while not completely at a loss, have pros all around to emphasize the duo's limitations. However, McGuire is more one-note than Jackson, whose emotional connection to Clifford reveals itself with moist eyes.

Cordes and Mowry are convincingly hip and fluid, but it's really Fritts and Weaver's play. His Gene is sad and ineffectual, and without the pathos he would be pitiful. Weaver's Terry is frightening, and the actress brave. Her entrance before the flashback is shocking, with the attractive actor hidden by a puffy, shell-shocked demeanor. A scene or two later, she's pretty and youthful and then spends the rest of the play subtly deteriorating. Both are very fine performances.

Georgianna Londre's costumes are bound by the ambience of a style of living rather than any calendar (the play is, in fact, hard to date), especially Terry's vintage maternity clothes and the side men's horrible blue jackets. Jeffrey Cady's lighting appropriately recalls a predawn after-hours club, and Atif Rome's set forms an oddly effective X, with the apartment in the lower left, a jazz stage in the upper right, and the restaurant a straight line intersecting both.

Side Man
through July 2
at Unicorn Theatre
3828 Main Street
816-531-7529

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