White-hot cool blues

ACT's production of Warren Leight's new play listens close to the music.

A jazz musician once told me a joke: A beautiful woman approaches a trumpet player after his performance and makes it clear that his music has moved her so much that she wants to take him home with her for a night of exquisite pleasure. After she details the erotic itinerary, the musician says he has just one question: "Did you like my first set better or the second one?"

Side Man

A Contemporary Theater till October 17

That obsessive, transcendent love for the music, to the exclusion of practically everyone and everything, is the subject of Warren Leight's superb new play Side Man. It focuses on the 30-year relationship between Gene, a jazz trumpeter, and Terry, the woman he falls in love with and marries. Unlike his fellow musicians, Gene's problems are not an excess of booze, dope, and flings, but an addiction to the life he's chosen, the uncompromising expression of his music.

Our narrator is Gene's grown son Clifford (Drew Ebersole, sensitive if a little overwrought), who chronicles not only Gene's career as a "side man"—a musical jack-of-all-trades—but the effect it has on his mother, including her alcoholism and descent into insanity.

The innovation in Leight's writing is that for a memory play, it's remarkably willing to accept the idea that memory is fundamentally untrustworthy. The first half of the evening is actually devoted to events that took place before Clifford's birth, making him a supremely unreliable narrator. Traditional memory plays tend to nostalgically simplify action, to make the assumption that, unlike the confused and dreary present, there is a simple lesson to be learned from the past. In contrast, Side Man's form is a purging of the unpalatable chaos and confusion of youth, so that the future can be sought with a certain peace.

John Procaccino, with his shambling calm charisma, is ideal as the sweet but infuriatingly passive Gene. He's so effortlessly authentic that it's something of a surprise never to see him lift his trumpet to his mouth and actually blow the notes we hear from off-stage. And as Terry, Marianne Owen does a marvelous job presenting a woman whose loving nature is terminally warped by her inability ever to have the security and love that she needs from her husband.

VISITING DIRECTOR MLADEN KISELOV is one of the most exciting directorial imports to Seattle we've had in some time. Most directors, faced with the theater-in-the-round of ACT's Allen Theater, work desperately to simplify set and movement so that sightlines remain unblocked and actors can get on and off the stage quickly. Working with set designer Narelle Sissons, Kiselov instead has created a show that revels in the unconventional. All around the perimeter of the stage is a solid set featuring images of urban life from the '50s together with evocative collages of objects, as if Clifford's memories are so potent that the stage isn't enough to hold them. An ingenious series of lifts in the stage floor raise prison bars, a hospital bed, and other objects that succinctly serve Leight's far-ranging and quick-changing action. And in a truly brilliant effect, when it's time for the introduction of the TV set that features Elvis Presley's fateful first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, it's lowered from the ceiling, its light spilling down on the doomed musicians below like the incontrovertible voice of God.

What Clifford and the audience are eventually led to admire about the jazzmen is their uncompromising, transcendent, even inhuman commitment to their music. For all the damage it's done to his life and his mother's, he can't help but see beyond this dark world of self-destruction to the ideal world of art—one that appears, if only fleetingly, when Gene and his jazz buddies are white-hot into a set.

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