‘Side Man’ at 1st Stage by Julia L. Exline


1st Stage presents Side Man, a powerful play by Warren Leight about a jazz trumpeter’s insatiable passion for his music, and its destructive effect on his family. Directed by Michael Dove, this is a play and production that hits all the right notes!

From left, Ziggy (Kevin Hasser), Patsy (Jjana Valentiner), Terry (Lee Mikeska Gardner), Al (Sun King Davis, left), and Jonesy (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Photo courtesy 1st Stage.

Set Designer Steven Royal creates a chill, jazzy vibe by coating the stage in darkness – from the bricks and curtains to the tables and chairs, everything is black. Single light bulbs and simple lamps hang from the ceiling, their yellowed light providing a stark contrast to the rest of the set. Actors carry mismatched furniture onto the set to create a living room, adding and removing props as the plot unfolds. Lighting by Stephanie Freed adds to the relaxed environment through the use of simple white and red lamps, and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers plays soft, sweet jazz music in the background for the majority of the play, alongside cues such as city traffic and ambulance sirens. Cheryl Patton uses costumes to reflect the character’s journeys – from semi-successful tan suits to simple slacks. Most noticeably, a young woman in pretty dresses and carefully curled hair shows less and less effort in her appearance as her life wears on, finally succumbing to tattered housecoats and slippers.

Michael Dove’s exceptional direction provides the actors with a solid framework, which allows their talents to freely shine, and they do not disappoint. Lee Mikeska Gardner is immediately enthralling as Terry, the mother of Clifford (Patrick Bussink) who engages the audience with his life story of growing up in the Bronx with a talented jazz musician as a father (Chris Mancusi as Gene), whose passion for his craft easily eclipses his passion for his family.

Patrick Bussink (Cliff) and Jjana Valentiner (Patsy). Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

The plot continually shifts from past to present, showing Terry from two different spectrums; as a sweet, optimistic youth, and a bitter, deeply unhappy woman. Clifford recalls a time before he was born, when jazz was popular, and his father was booked with gigs. One particularly nice scene shows the couple dancing in their apartment with their friends, to which Clifford responds, “From what I understand, everyone was happy before I was born.” Gene’s fellow musicians and best friends make up a group of great characters, from Patsy (Jjana Valentiner) a lively waitress, to Al (Sun King Davis) an arrogant womanizer. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh gives an absorbing performance as Jonesy, a fun-loving heroin addict who has you laughing one minute and serious as a stone the next. In one of my favorite scenes, an arrested and badly beat-up Jonesy tries to appeal to Gene through a swollen mouth, and his defeated body shakes from withdrawal. Kevin Hasser lends a lightness to the plot as Ziggy, a somewhat nerdy and awkward musician. Hasser’s movements and dialect are exceptionally crafted and very impressive.

As time goes on, Elvis and rock and roll overtake the music industry, with Gene all the while refusing to acknowledge the fact that jazz is a quickly dying art. Through this, he assures his worried wife that he will “take care of everything.” Terry dissolves into a resentful alcoholic, and Gardner’s performance of her dissension is masterful as she chain-smokes her way across the stage. While this show is emotionally powerful, a humorous balance is kept. For instance, after an explosive fight scene between his parents, Clifford turns to the audience and quips, “It’s good for a family to have rituals.” The performances are so moving and commanding that the audience leapt off their seats as soon as the actors took the stage for their bows for a highly enthusiastic standing ovation.

With exceptional design work, solid direction, and a hugely talented cast, 1st Stage’s Side Man yields a powerfully entertaining night of theater! Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, including one 15-minutes intermission.

Side Man plays through April 22, 2012 at 1st Stage -1524 Spring Hill Road, Suite LL, in McLean, VA. Purchase tickets by calling (703) 854-1856, or order them online.

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