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‘Side Man’ is ambitious effort

Tony winner focuses on end of big band era

SHARE ‘Side Man’ is ambitious effort

SIDE MAN, Egyptian Theatre Company, Mary G. Steiner Egyptian Theatre, Park City; continues through Oct. 6; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays; two matinees, 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23 & 30. All seats reserved. Tickets range from $12 to $20; children not allowed. Reservations: 1-435-649-9371 or 888-243-5779. Running time: 2 hours (one 15-minute intermission).

PARK CITY — If you go to see "Side Man" at Park City's Egyptian Theatre, be prepared for the fact that the actor who plays the son looks at least as old as the actor who plays the father.

When you know that, actually, you will know the theme of the play. "Side Man," by Warren Leight, won a Tony Award in 1999 for Best New Play. It is about alleged adults who bring a child into the world but are too immature to raise him.

Leight himself says the story is about jazz. Well, it is that, too. It is about the coming of Elvis and television and end of the big bands. But it is also the story of a man whose passion in life precludes a family. His passion is music and nightclubs. The play is also about the woman he married, a woman who was wacky in the first place, and who, by the time she's been married to him and ignored by him for 10 years, is quite insane.

Shawn Nottingham plays Clifford, the son. Brad Schroeder is Gene, the father, the man who plays horn. Mary Parker Williams is Terry, the mom. Terry is the most complex character in the play, but Williams understands her and portrays her well.

Terry is, above all, nave. An example: It takes her forever to catch on to the fact that Gene and his fellow musicians use drugs.

Joe Debevc plays one of those pals, Jonesy. Kurt Proctor is Ziggy, who has a lisp, which Proctor manages to keep from being too annoying. Carl Nelson is Al.

The actors who play the sidekicks exude a warmth toward Gene's wife and son, and toward each other, and help to keep the mood elevated a bit. The script calls for bleakness, and on Saturday night, when the whole world felt kind of bleak anyway, the performers had all they could do to keep the play from going flat.

Christy Summerhays helped, too, with her interpretation of Patsy, the waitress who has been married so often that Clifford can't keep track of all her husbands. Some of the best lines are Patsy's. "I've been in love with Al ever since Leon and I were engaged," she says, by way of proving herself loyal.

Director Jerry Rapier undertook an ambitious play with "Side Man." The playwright was more in love with jazz than the audience is. Nottingham and Schroeder have a hard job convincing us that Gene's talent makes up for everything else. There are moments when we feel real sympathy for Gene and for Clifford. There are also moments when we might have felt even more sympathy for Clifford, had we realized he was supposed to be only 10 years old in that particular scene.

Sensitivity rating: Lots of swearing. Smoking of pretend pot on stage. Adult themes. The producers say the show is not recommended for those under 18, but they err on the side of prudence. In fact, while the language may be hard to take, the themes are not. High school students who have studied Tennessee Williams, for example, would not be at all overwhelmed by this play.