Don't quit your day job," is an acerbic taunt thrown at aspiring artists. It got some credence from the excellent production of Sideman recently at Muriel's Cabaret at Le Petit Theatre. Warren Leight's play won the 1998 Tony Award and was nominated for the Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It's a taut, intense study of the life of modern jazz musicians.
The jazz world is rife with the romance of decay and decadence. In Sideman, we see too clearly the heavy price paid by the wife and son of an artist. Trumpeter Gene (Michael Aaron Santos) is the central character of the play, although the story is told by his son Clifford. Gene is a sideman with various big bands at the height of their popularity — the '40s and '50s. Clifford (Sam Dudley) watches the disintegration of his family as his parents split apart and his mother, Terry (Ashley Ricord), slips into alcoholism.
The problems of a professional musician are complex. There's a narcissistic focus on self and persuing art. There also is what you might call "the guy thing" — a sort of locker-room camaraderie between the musicians. Gene and fellow horn players Ziggy (Andrew Larimer), Jonesy (James Bartelle) and Al (Alex Martinez Wallace) bond over booze and marijuana. It's hard for Gene to balance the temptations surrounding his professional life and support a wife and child. Clifford struggles with feelings of guilt about the family's collapse: "Things would have been better for them if they'd never had me," he laments.
It's possible Terry fell for Gene out of some inclination to spiral into disaster, but the play seems to suggest that love can crumble and cause terrible damage without any unconscious intention.
At times, one can't help but wonder how real Terry's innocence is. She makes many remarks about the musicians' smoking habits — rolling their own "to save money" — and the strange smell of the smoke. These lines get a laugh, but how long would it take someone in that environment to figure out what's really going on?
In the beginning, Gene and Terry seem happy. She gets pregnant, however, and he suggests an abortion. When that idea upsets her, he changes course and asks her to marry him. The other musicians quake at the thought of supporting a child. "Man, you're going to end up teaching music in a high school in Long Island," one warns.
Terry is worried about their economic outlook, too, but Gene is blithely confident. "If there ever comes a Saturday night when I'm not booked, I'll get out of the business," he promises.
Things go along swimmingly for a while. There are plenty of gigs. Then the Beatles, Elvis and pop music elbow the big bands off the stage. Gene finds himself idle on many Saturday nights, but he stays in the business. He doesn't look for other kinds of work. The trumpet is a totem to him — his measure of identity and his human worth.
Clifford would like to be a visual artist. He's earned a scholarship to study art, but he goes to work in advertising so he'll have a steady income. Early in the play, he meets his father and musician buddies at the unemployment office. They are all picking up checks. They go to a restaurant where the waitress (Kate Kuen) brings them soup — nothing but soup, the gruel of a grueling existence.
Meanwhile, the family disintegration continues. Finally, Clifford has to talk his mother out of jumping off a window ledge. All these penurious characters are staring into the abyss, but Terry is the only one who truly knows it.
Director Mike Harkins captures the humor and despair of this grim world. Santos and Ricord are subtle, convincing actors. The rest of the topnotch cast created a believable Big Apple jazz scene. The NOLA Project and InSideOut Productions created a fascinating drama.