‘Side Man’: Over decades, the dream slowly died

From the left: James Hunt, Leonard Chasse, Brad Michael Pickett and Phil Thompson in Theater UnCorked’s “Side Man.” Photo: Theater UnCorked

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – There’s nothing sadder than a bunch of people on a sinking ship who seem oblivious to the fact they are going down for the count.

A group of jazz musicians watch a young man from Memphis swivel his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show and don’t realize what his ascendance will mean to their lives – and to the lives of their families.

Theater UnCorked is presenting “Side Man,” Warren Leight’s 1998 Tony Award-winning play, through Sunday in the Plaza Théâtre of the Boston Center for the Arts.

“Side Man” is a powerful, often harrowing look at a genre that fell by the wayside over a period of about three decades in New York City covered in the piece.

For all of  its angst and heartbreak, Leight often finds humor in his  fictionalized but highly autobiographical memory play about a jazz trumpeter who locks himself inside his music and can’t become a real father and husband to a son and wife who desperately need him. Leight’s father Donald was a “side man,” in musical terms a performer who can blend in with the band or shine as a solo performer.

The story is told from the eyes of Clifford (Ben Gold), the son of trumpeter Gene (Brad Michael Pickett) and waitress Terry (Sehnaz “Shana” Dirik).

Through the years, Gene is inseparable from both his instrument and his “Rat Pack,” a trio of fellow musicians. There’s good-hearted heroin addict Jonesy (Phil Thompson), the faithful, ever-lisping Ziggy (James Hunt);  and certified ladies’ man Al (Leonard Chasse), one of the many husbands of good-hearted waitress Patsy (Jennifer Shotkin) who can’t live with musicians or, it turns out, without them All four  are strong, but Thompson’s role is the meatiest  and he runs with it.

Sehnaz (Shana) Dirik as Terry in “Side Man.” Photo: Theater UnCorked

When the play begins at the Melody Lounge, Clifford – named for a famed jazz trumpeter who dies young – has returned to visit his now-divorced parents before moving to California, his last task in a lifetime of refereeing his parents’ battles.

Gene and Terry seem mismatched from the start – even when they first meet while performing dueling solos — but Clifford has an explanation for their getting together: “The rocks in her head fit the holes in his.”

When the “boys” are together, Gene comes alive; when they aren’t, he withdraws and becomes a spectator to life.

That means that when the desperately unhappy Terry turns to alcohol and begs Gene to leave his life before it leaves him, her pleas fall on deaf ears. “If ever I’m sitting at home on a Saturday night and not working, I’ll quit.”

But when it finally happens, he clings to false hopes about the future and Terry can’t control her rage.

Since she established Theater UnCorked,  Artistic Director Dirik  has made it a point to challenge herself with difficult roles such as this one and last year’s Fosca in a Covid-shortened run of  Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.”

The role of Terry is a grind, but Dirik ultimately triumphs. Terry is profane, an alcoholic, descending quickly – perhaps too quickly –into the clouds of mental illness.  If there is one area where Leight’s piece falls a bit short, it’s in making Terry take such a deep, quick descent into darkness.

Gold’s Clifford moves effortlessly from narrator to being in the moment and part of the action. He can see the train wreck coming, as his parents drift apart.

Gene is in denial much of the time, and it is up to the resilient Clifford, who has managed to cut through the chaos and excel academically – even earning a scholarship to the acclaimed Rhode Island School of Design and working in advertising  – to become his mother’s caretaker. He coaxes her off a fire escape and rescues her from a hospital emergency room, trying to get her the proper care.

While the tone is dark, there is fun to be had, especially in the musicians’ convoluted explanation of “jazzonomics”: The carefully-calibrated dance between working and collecting unemployment benefits, and the celebration that ensues when Clifford briefly joins the family business and cashes his first unemployment check.

The jazz riffs that permeate the piece are always welcome, especially with the Clifford Brown classic “A Night in Tunisia.” The lighting by Erik Fox and sound design Tim Rose are both effective, as are Anna Silva’s costumes.

Director Russell R. Greene has molded his cast into a tight ensemble, playing off one another expertly; “Side Man” flows briskly at two hours, including an intermission.

Dirik hit on something in describing “Side Man”:  “Jazz isn’t the only thing rock and roll destroyed.”

In the way it explores the death of the American Dream for the jazz era’s “side man,” Leight’s piece has something in common with an iconic work: The demise of the traveling salesman in “Death of a Salesman.”  Good company to keep.

Theater UnCorked’s presentation of Warren Leight’s “Side Man.” Directed by Russell R. Greene. At the Plaza Theatre of the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston, through May 7. Tickets: bostontheatrescene.com.