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Family matters: Side Man plays for the laughs.

Playing for Laughs

By James Yeara

Side Man

By Warren Leight, directed by Steve Coat

Home Made Theater, Spa Little Theater, through Oct. 28

Scenic designer Mary Fran Hughes’ set stretches across the stage in director Steve Coats’ production of Side Man at Spa Little Theater. A bar with several LPs on the wall is tucked into the far-stage-right corner; upstage, huge painted flats in bright colors rise three stories tall, black music notes placed amid the yellows and reds; a restaurant booth with black-and-white photos of jazz musicians on the wall is tucked into the stage left corner. That’s a lot of empty space to fill between the tucked eateries and in front of the black notes surrounded by colors.

Side Man, winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, tells the story of Clifford Glimmer (Peter Burleigh), son of trumpet player Gene Glimmer (Ron DeLucia) and his fiery wife Terry Glimmer (Winnie Bowen). The narrative leaps back and forth from Clifford’s present, 1985, and Gene’s prime, 1953, with stops in the ever downward in-between years. The play unfolds through Clifford’s direct address to the audience, seemingly seeking to enact the truth of the William Wordsworth verse: “The child is the father of the man.” It’s not a poem the Glimmers would know, even though their lives reflect the truth of it. Clifford tells the stories that have been told to him, stories that revolve around his father’s career as a “sideman,” a musician hired to play with the headliner, and the toll he, his fellow sidemen, his wife, and his son paid. “The rocksh in her head match the wholesh in hish,” as speech-impaired sideman Ziggy (John Schmiederer) says.

The picaresque stories are plumbed for their laughs, and the audience reacts as if this were a Neil Simon play. The performances are broadly comic, and nary a moment is lost in the pursuit of the laughs. Gene’s fellow sidemen—macho yet sensitive Al (Armando Morales), the lishping Ziggy, and addict trombone player Jonesy (Stephen Henel)—hang out at “Melody Lounge” down left, flirt with the leggy blond waitress Patsy (a willowy Audrey Looye), who turns out through the spiral of the years to be a serial marrier/divorcee, tell stories, and listen to jazz. Clifford is like Eugene Morris Jerome, the protagonist of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, and Burleigh captures all the wane comedy in his father’s desultory life. The cast is up to the task of evoking laughter; even the scenes when Terry begins her slide into the life of the sideman’s wife, naively smoking a joint, taking the first of what becomes a river of drinks, casually salting her dialogue with “You guys are fucking weird,” “Is ‘motherfucker’ bad or good?” or “Enjoy your macaroni and cheese, motherfuckers,” elicit laughs. Shooting heroin into eyeballs, suicide attempts, brawls, and mental illness seem as funny as everything else, or like mere filler notes on the way to rimshots.

In this respect, the set seems to be symbolic of the performances: Everything is stretched thin. There’s funny, but Side Man has more to offer than jazzy Neil Simon.


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