Big Bad Bands

Who Knew What Tawdry Company Benny Goodman Kept?

I DON'T KNOW if it's a saying, exactly, but somebody once told me with great conviction, "There's nothing more entertaining than somebody else's misfortune." While I maintain the hope that this is entirely untrue, a truer line was never spoken about Warren Leight's Side Man, which premiered as a new play on Broadway in 1998, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and won a 1999 Tony Award for Best Play before making its way to the boards at ATC.

I must confess, I was not optimistic after the last two homages to jazz glimpsed on ATC's stage, which utterly failed to impress. With the music world in general -- whether it's blues, swing, rock, whatever -- there's a tendency to romanticize degradation that I find neither uplifting nor entertaining. Add to that, Side Man details the waning days of Big Band, which heretofore I've considered the most boring music on the planet, by sole virtue of the fact that it's the only music my dad will listen to.

So with a cast starring five horn players practicing the "jazzonomics" of the New York welfare system, one junkie, an unabashed adulteress, a belligerent drunk and a 29-year-old narrator whose opening lines include, "Things would've been better for them if they'd never had me," I settled in for a long night at the theatre.

And then something totally unexpected happened. I enjoyed it.

For starters, the set design is another wondrous ATC collage of streetscapes and interior spaces, a harmonious collision of old brick and fire escapes, '80s chic and nostalgic '50s décor. Two stories high, three buildings deep and composed like a Stuart Davis painting, it manages to capture a whole city in a single plane. The play opens in the intimate space of the Melody Lounge, where 29-year-old Clifford awaits a reunion with his estranged father. A voice in his head takes us center stage, to the dingy living room where we witness the decline of his mother, Terry.

Hovering off to the right is a red-checkered booth at the local diner, where narrator Clifford says of his dad and the boys, "You can always spot them: they wear car coats, caps, a lot of brown and tan polyester; and they sit as far away from daylight as possible."

The characters in question are "Clean" Gene (Clifford's dad and the eponymous side-man trumpeter), the womanizing Al, wise-cracking, speech-impaired Ziggy, and Jonesy the heroine addict. During the first hour and 20 minutes, we're treated to the lighter side of darkness as these four wisecrack and reminisce about a musical life with too many drugs and not enough money, where the highest aim was to "keep your nut small, pay your dues, and get to blow your horn."

Clifford jumps backward and forward in time, from the present (1985) back to 1953, when a young Gene and a naïve but headstrong Terry met, "before the Beatles, before Elvis. When these guys were like ball players. On the road, written up in the papers, endorsing trumpets in Down Beat." In other words, when life as a side man was as good as it was going to get, and that was barely good enough. At least there was work every night of the week, and New York was still the epicenter of the entertainment industry.

As we follow Clifford back and forth through time and place, we come to see him as a side man in his own right, stage managing the retelling of his family history through four decades: his expository interjections ("a mormon: this means a little pot, a couple times a day; Benzedrine inhalers; booze) and constant supply of necessary props and prompts keep him in constant motion. It's Clifford, in the wings, who simultaneously holds his parents together and keeps them moving inexorably toward their final slide into oblivion.

Side Man's non-linear structure and wholly anecdotal delivery create the illusion of chaos and complication, but Clifford's co-dependent care of his incapable parents prevents the whole from lapsing into confusion.

There is much in Side Man that would seem difficult to watch: an impressive amount of foul language, screaming, confessions of a smack addict, evidence of violence. And yet, even the darkest material is handled with an undercurrent of ridiculousness that pushes each scene into the realm of the horrifyingly funny.

This cast of distinguished national talents brings some new faces to the ATC stage. Young Liam Craig delivers a solid if unremarkable Clifford, while Joel Anderson (Gene) and Susan Cella (Terry) give command performances in the leading roles. Anderson is the perfect, ineffectual straight man to Cella's volatile and yet vulnerable character; her "Crazy Terry" wouldn't be nearly as much fun to watch if he didn't so accurately play the role she lays out for him.

Supporting actors Nicolas Glaeser (Jonesy), Larry Paulsen (as the lishping horn player Zhiggy), and Kevin Ramsey (Al) are all polished veterans returning to the ATC stage, and their chemistry here is as smooth as those recorded solos by Clifford Brown and Dizzy G that bring the story's musical history into focus...even for the reluctant listener.

I suspect some who enjoyed the music of bandleaders like Charlie Barnet in the '40s, on through Benny Goodman in the '70s, might be surprised by the seediness with which it is presented here. Certainly this play's story is less about the music and more about the lives of those both caught up in and caught outside of that strange cultural transition that happened between World War II and the Vietnam War, only to emerge, lost and largely forgotten, in the cultural wasteland of the 1980s.

"No one will even understand what they were doing," is Clifford's final analysis. "They played for each other, night after night, just burning brass. Oblivious."

Arizona Theatre Company's Side Man continues through January 29 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Evening and matinee tickets range from $20 to $30, available at the ATC box office and all Dillard's ticket outlets. Half-price "rush" tickets are available one hour prior to performance at the ATC box office only. For reservations and information, call 622-2823.