July 2, 2004





Family drama with a jazz underscore


Call it "The Brass Menagerie." In "Side Man," Warren Leight's evenhanded but unflinching 1996 memory play, the narrator looks back on a childhood he spent mediating between a distant trumpet-player dad and a loud, bitterly disappointed mom, and looks back further to discover how they got that way.


In director Christopher Hart's new revival, Leight's play retains its formidable chops, even with a few missed downbeats.


The cast is nearly perfect: As Gene, the jazzman who's only good for music, Jack Conley is eerily right, with a long face and feline cool that suggests Tom Waits' taller, quieter brother. As his wife Terry, whose high-strung dreaminess makes a tragic match for Genie's emotional aphasia, the endearing Ellen Greene dances expertly on the knife's edge between vivacious and volatile, then slices through to steely resignation.


As Gene's bandmates, wiry Eddie Kehler, gladhanding Todd Truly and slick John Mariano expertly mine the comedy from the play's many scenes of profane gallows humor and after-hours badinage. And in Paula Post's astute costumes, they always look their parts.


As son Clifford, David Barry Gray performs affectingly opposite the others. Unfortunately most of the part is straight-out narration, which Gray delivers with the glib overemphasis of a TV newscaster.


And while the small space's smoky intimacy puts us almost inside the action, Gary Randall's resourceful set doesn't quite master all the play's shifting times and spaces.


Still, this "Side Man" hits enough of the right notes to put across the play's plaintive tune.

--Rob Kendt


"Side Man," Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. 8 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. $25. (310) 589-1998. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.