Side Man, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Engaging if somewhat slim and sometimes familiar, Warren Leight’s bitterly nostalgic drama about a talented jazz musician down on his luck is helped greatly in its Chicago premiere by Mark Wendland’s charming nightclub set and music director Joe Cerqua’s nuanced sound design. Partly a heartfelt elegy for the era just before big bands made way for rock ‘n’ roll, Side Man depicts the relationship between a passive-aggressive trumpet player and his headstrong, depressed wife through the eyes of their son, Clifford. As Clifford, Garret Dillahunt is invariably sympathetic, though mostly because of his unenviable role as peacemaker between his hapless father and profanity-spewing, chain-smoking, suicidal mother. In the domestic scenes, Rick Snyder and Rondi Reed are consistently credible as his parents, although Reed’s occasionally gruff performance sometimes suggests a cliched house-slipper-clad Manhattan building superintendent.
Where Anna D. Shapiro’s production falters is in the authenticity of the jazz milieu. The set and costumes are excellent, but Leight’s banter feels imitative and lacks specificity. A scene where the trumpet player and his buddies groove to a recording of “Night in Tunisia” seems intended to demonstrate their camaraderie and artistry. But it rings about as true as a dad playing air guitar at his daughter’s Sweet 16. The result is a production much like Clifford’s father–full of memorable solos and riffs but without the right timing or drive to be a standout. –Adam Langer