All That Shtick

Reefer days, Benzedrine nights: A hipster hoedown from the Guthrie Lab's Side Man

The photographs running along the bottom of the program for Side Man, currently playing at the Guthrie Lab, reveal a wildly gesticulating man, face framed by a scruffy beard and unkempt hair. This is Tony Award-winning playwright Warren Leight. The photos seem almost like frames from a filmstrip titled "You Too Can Look Like a Very Hot Young Playwright Who Writes About the Hipster Underworld." Indeed, the subject of the play--which follows the decline of a jazz trumpeter as both his career and his family collapse around him--would lead one to expect that Leight would be something of a shaggy wild man. So how come his play reads like an extended borscht-belt riff, albeit one in which stories of heroin replace cracks about gefilte fish?

While Side Man, with main characters that are either mad or emotionally crippled, may seem squalid and downright unpleasant, in performance it feels like the adult material cornpone comedians would save for their late-night performances ("Remember, folks, the ten o'clock show gets a little blue"). At his best, Leight is more Phil Silvers than Lenny Bruce: droll, seedy, and occasionally uproarious, but hardly likely to be pulled off the stage by police.

In fact, if you didn't know better, you would swear Phil Silvers is onstage at the Guthrie Lab, playing the character Ziggy. Not only does actor Richard S. Iglewski bear an uncanny resemblance to the comedian, but he also has adopted some of Silvers's winking con-artist persona. Iglewski slurs his dialogue thanks to a scripted speech impediment, singing out odes to uppers ("Every time it rainsh it rainsh benniesh from heaven") and rat-tat-tat punch lines ("He shpent the war teaching retarded buglersh reveille"). In doing so, Iglewski recalls Silvers at his best--as a naughty, card-playing, put-upon boy.

All of the jazz musicians in the play share this boyishness. Director Ethan McSweeny has put a joy buzzer in the hands of one musician, reefer in the hands of another, and has them huddle together whispering jokes and scheming to play hooky from life. Leight has admitted that the play is autobiographical ("autobiographical enough," to be exact), as his father was a jazz trumpeter for more than 50 years, and his script brings a schmoozy authenticity to the behavior of the four central horn players. They steal crackers from restaurants, listen in awed silence to old jazz recordings, and avoid anything resembling responsibility with the pathology of the terminally immature. Gene, the play's stand-in for Leight's father, is so disconnected from his own life that he must write himself notes to remember to take showers. As played by Frank Deal, Gene snaps his fingers in syncopated paradiddles and stares into space even as his wife begins to destroy herself with alcohol and paranoia.

Leight is at his most poignant in charting the souring relationship between Gene and his wife, a mouthy, bewildered divorcée played by Stephanie Zimbalist. Unfortunately, Leight has also included himself in the story as a character named Clifford (played with a terminally false, forced smile by Jim Lichtscheidl), who narrates most of the play, pausing the action to comment awkwardly upon it. "Time flies when it crawls," he says to the audience at one point--a remark meant to sound significant, but making little sense on closer examination.

In his introduction to the published version of the play, Leight has as much as admitted that Clifford is something of a snooze, writing, "Actors who play Clifford will be frustrated, because he too is a bit of a side man." Clifford provides excessive, unneeded commentary on the play, such as his elaboration on why jazzmen are bad at economics--an explanation that comes moments after we witness jazzmen engaging in a shockingly ill-informed discussion of finances. Lichtscheidl shrugs his way through these scenes, smiling his false (but winning) smile, never letting on that he is doing his best with an underwritten character. Fortunately, Clifford is a bit of a side man; his intrusions into the play are thankfully brief, and then the play returns to the horn players, where it belongs.

The property list for Steven Dietz's adaptation of Dracula calls for a "covered silver platter with: live large brown rat." In his notes the playwright demands, "Blood should be plentiful." These are ghoulish but promising notations to find in a script, and Dietz starts his play by dangling the rat directly above the waiting mouth of a lunatic, Renfield, where the animal squirms in terror as the madman tries to devour it. While the ASPCA might frown upon this, it is a hell of a good way to start a play.

Alas, after that bravura opening, Dietz has nothing to say about Dracula that has not appeared in the 1924 stage adaptation and the hundreds of film versions. Even Dan Hopman's seminaked, raving Renfield in the Park Square Theatre's production cannot compete with Dwight Frye's transcendent lunacy in the 1931 Todd Browning film version. While director Richard Cook has written in the theater's press kit for the Park Square production that he wanted "a young, energetic, sexy cast," they could hardly compare with the seductive Spanish-language Dracula that was shot simultaneously with Browning's film, using his sets. And it's the same old story of a group of British dimwits who plot to kill a European nobleman when they become convinced he is sucking their blood. Come to think of it, that's a pretty balmy story, and Dietz does little to explore its essential absurdity.

What Park Square does have to offer, however, is a fabulous Dracula, played by Michael Booth. In a collarless dress shirt and high boots, spitting out dialogue such as "The Huns were despicable, but they knew their wine," Booth's count is pure Eurotrash. One imagines him using that line on a 15-year-old girl at a party in the Hollywood Hills before raving about the films of Sam Fuller and offering her cocaine. Now that would be frightening.

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