Gene, the title character in Warren Leight's Side Man, is a white, early middle-aged New Yorker so self-absorbed and obsessed with his work--he's a jazz trumpeter--that it ruins his marriage and alienates him from his son. The end of the play finds him on a small stage with his trumpet, not literally alone, but off in his own musical universe, trying to get what consolation he can from his art.
In truth, the two plays aren't as alike as these thumbnail portraits suggest. The Monogamist is a comedy of sexual manners, set in the early '90s, that runs straight from Dennis' too-confident declaration of faithfulness into a thicket of bed-hopping and finger-pointing. Side Man has its comic moments, too, but its core is a downbeat autopsy of a failed marriage. Like a jazz solo (and like The Glass Menagerie, which it resembles in many ways), it veers away from this main theme and returns to it in different moods--sometimes romantic, sometimes blistering--as the action jumps between the '50s and the '80s in a pattern that owes much to memory and very little to chronology.
The most significant difference, as far as the main characters are concerned, is that sideman Gene truly is consoled by his music. In fact, it seems to be the only thing in life that means anything at all to Gene, whereas Dennis' videos are more a symptom of his isolation than a salve for it. But having spent a few hours with both men last week--Gene at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Dennis at Manbites Dog--I'm beginning to suspect that self-absorbed, middle-aged artists whose main problem is a failure to connect with other people may not be the most dramatically promising characters to build plays around.
This comes through most clearly in PRC's Side Man, mainly because the production has so many virtues that its flaws stand out in sharper relief. Drew Blair's direction swoops and glides through the mind of the show's narrator, Clifford--the side man's son--with shimmering finesse, yet every emotion is as solid and recognizable as the battered, '50s furniture in the family's walk-up apartment. Narelle Sissons' open, sprawling set matches the fluidity of the play's structure; Joe Cerqua's sound design pervades the action so completely that it's almost a character in itself; and Bobbi Owen's costumes epitomize Eisenhower-era hip--sorry, hep. As icing on the cake, a quartet of PRC veterans (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Kenneth P. Strong, Ray Dooley and Julie Fischell) supply low comedy and muggles-befogged atmosphere as Gene's bandmates and their much married, helmet-haired waitress-muse.
Only at the center do things get a little dicey. Jack Marshall is solid and winning as the now-mature Clifford, looking back at a past he needs to understand in order to escape, but Christopher McHale and Jennifer Rohn seem slightly out of focus as Gene and his alcoholic, mentally unbalanced wife, Terry. His polite, clean-cut Gene seems too normal at the beginning to turn into a man almost catatonically oblivious to his family, and her Terry seems forced: The naive young girl in a ponytail is a touch too naive; the sullen, swearing drunk tries to plod listlessly, but can't help seeming light on her feet.
But perhaps it's the characters themselves that are out-of-focus: Leight based them on his own parents, and Gene and Terry carry with them a snarl of loose ends and unexplained quirks that seem to owe more to life than to art. Gene's distance and Terry's rages are made worse by the interplay between them, but their fights (and the play as a whole) don't explain what made them the way they are. They're just there, like real people, and Clifford's closing statement that he'll never understand them has the ring of truth, albeit undramatic truth. Scene by scene, Side Man is wonderful theater, but its ending lacks the sense of insight and completion that great plays provide.
Where Gene is inexplicably removed from his own feelings, Dennis, the hero of Manbites Dog's The Monogamist, errs in the opposite direction. Played by Mark Filiaci with a dead pan (which is quite funny) and a rather low level of energy (which isn't), Dennis is so tightly wound that he dreams of videotaping his entire life and compiling a tape of the unselfconscious moments, just to prove he has them.
The whole play is shot through with references to self-knowledge, self expression and self-promotion, with the implication that they may all be the same thing. One of Dennis' former students (Lissa Brennan) has her own cable-access TV show, and his wife (Nicole Farmer Taylor, in the show's most three-dimensional performance) has just achieved a bit of fame with a book on Emily Dickinson. But The Monogamist works best when it stays closest to those tried-and-true conventions of sex farce, the May-December mismatch and the interrupted tryst. The high points include Dennis' attempted seduction of a tie-dyed 20-something who's several steps ahead of him (Autumn E. Ayers), and a couple of post-coital encounters between Dennis and a cheerful hunk who keeps turning up in his bed at awkward moments (Eric Bryant).
Those moments would be even funnier if director Paul Frellick had staged the action at a slightly brisker clip and given the show a clearer point of view. At times, The Monogamist seems unsure whether it's a farce, a satire or a domestic comedy with serious overtones, primarily because the hero never comes into focus. Is he meant to be pathetic? A comic butt? A warning? Unlike Gene, Dennis presumably wasn't based on author Christopher Kyle's father--or, I hope, on anyone else's--but he leaves the same impression that a vital piece of the puzzle is missing.