SARASOTA — Trumpet players don't dance. They never pick up the check. They don't buy when they can rent. They order soup.
Musicians' shop talk is irresistible, and the wit and wisdom of working jazz players is one of the pleasures of Warren Leight's Side Man, which chronicles the life and career of a trumpeter and his alcoholic wife from 1953 to 1985, as seen through the eyes of their son. Winner of the 1999 Tony Award for best play, it is now receiving a solidly satisfying production, directed by Jim Wise for Banyan Theater.
"Nothing gets to him" is the exasperated refrain of Terry, the salty Bostonian married to Gene Glimmer, the laid-back trumpet player who comes fully alive only when he's making music. As portrayed by Steve DuMouchel and Roxanne Fay, their relationship starts off sexy and sweet, but eventually Terry's addiction and Gene's self-absorption turns their cramped New York apartment into a battleground.
Juan Javier Cardenas is excellent as Terry and Gene's son, Clifford (named after jazz trumpet god Clifford Brown). Side Man is Clifford's memory play, as the point of view shifts between him as a 29-year-old estranged from his father and a 10-year-old who constantly has to patch things up between his dysfunctional parents, though Cardenas' performance doesn't distinguish much between the boy and the man. With his air of wry, ironic intelligence, he seems exactly right as someone who grew up listening to his dad play in joints like the Melody Lounge ("When I was a kid, I thought the Melody Lounge was the coolest place on earth"). Now he is a connoisseur of a lost art from the golden age of American jazz, "a 50-year blip on the screen" when the big bands and bebop ruled pop music and trumpeters like Brown, Lee Morgan, Fats Navarro and Chet Baker were household names.
Leight's play (inspired by his father, Donald Leight, who played trumpet in bands led by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill) doesn't pull any punches in depicting the ugly bickering of Terry and Gene. Fay, smoking and wearing a ratty bathrobe most of the time, succeeds in the tough acting job of making Terry sympathetic but also pathetic, drunkenly raging at the maddening detachment of her husband. DuMouchel has the easygoing, emotionally clueless jazz man down pat.
Gene's fellow trumpeters are Ziggy, a bespectacled hipster with a speech impediment played by Dan Bright in a raffish, funny style reminiscent of Arnold Stang, Frank Sinatra's pal Sparrow in The Man with the Golden Arm; and Al (Robert Herrle), a heartthrob on the bandstand. One of the plots of the play that becomes a bit labored is the heroin addiction of Jonesy (Robert D. Mowry), a trombonist who switches to drums after a police beating wrecks his mouth. Rounding out the gang is Patsy, a redheaded waitress at the Melody Lounge, played with screwball charm by Lauren L. Wood.
Nobody enjoys listening to top-notch musicians perform more than other musicians, and Side Man captures that brilliantly in a scene in which Gene, Ziggy and Al bond over a recording of Brown's solo on A Night in Tunisia. For almost four minutes there is no dialogue, just the guys jiving to the music. Their orgasmic response says it all.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.