Past and present, comedy and drama, love and sorrow are all tactfully pieced together in the Yale Dramatic Association’s “Side Man,” a play that spans 32 years of the rhythmic highs and lows of a New York City family. Set amid the decline of Jazz from American pastime to musical artifact, the framework story of a long day’s journey into the past reveals itself in layers of turbulent emotion.

But “Side Man” admittedly gets off to a slow start. The show begins with an expository monologue from Clifford (Steven Kochevar ’09), the despairing son of deadbeat jazz musician Gene (Nicholas Barton ’08) and his alcoholic wife Terry (Miranda Jones ’06.) Most of what Clifford needlessly says, despite the actor’s attempts to make it all interesting, falls on deaf ears. The few lines that do stand out, like “Things would have been better off if they had never had me,” suffer from apparent mock-profundity.

Picking up the pace, Clifford then leads the audience through a series of flashbacks, showing and telling the events of his parents’ meeting, courtship and marriage. These scenes focus heavily on the dysfunctional interactions between man and wife, attributing their failed attempts at happiness to Gene’s obsession with jazz and the lifestyle it entails.

Other characters include a tarty, high-heeled waitress by the name of Patsy (Iris Insogna ’08), and the three horn-blowing buffoons that make up Gene’s comitatus: Ziggy, Al and Jonesy (Josh Odsess-Rudin ’08, Michael Rucker ’07 and Lee Seymour ’09, respectively.) Their roles may be smaller than the other three, but they are far from insignificant. The heart of the show resides in the presence of these characters as they joke, flirt and tell stories, while also receiving their share of pain and disappointment.

“Side Man” boasts a relatively small cast of only seven actors, each of whom brings their character to life with overall skill. Kochevar plays a perfect, nervous 10-year-old, even if his adult-aged Clifford bears a curious resemblance to one “serious” Jim Carrey. The other cast members, especially Odsess-Rudin and Seymour, deliver consistent, refreshing performances.

But if one actor could claim “Side Man” for her own, it would have to be Miranda Jones. Her volatile, foul-mouthed “Crazy Terry” is a sight to behold. The bulk of the play’s comedy, as well as its most poignant and tragic moments, relies on her superb ability to walk an emotional tight-rope from one end of the stage to the other.

As far as production goes, director Scott Chaloff ’08 allows no slip-ups. Liam Andrew ’07’s sound design, which range from New Haven-esque police sirens to the jazzy soundtrack, compliment the actors’ lines with minimal intrusion. A well-used and adequately designed set by Alice Tai ’08 easily allow for the requisite traversal of time and perspective. Even the costumes, especially the colorful, feminine dresses donned by Jones, approach perfection.

Those who lack an interest in jazz may feel reluctant to see “Side Man,” but any appreciation of the music would only be a bonus, not a necessity for the enjoyment of the play, with one exception: a lengthy scene near the end in which the only thing happening on-stage is a group of guys goofily drooling over a recording. Mere music, at that point, is hardly enough to hold anyone’s attention.

However, staying alert during “Side Man” is seldom a problem, especially during the second act. Some scenes grip so tightly and enthrall so fully that they come to embody the paradox that Clifford points out: “Time flies when it crawls.” Having started slow, the play builds and builds on its shaky foundation to create spectacular moments of gripping drama, with a heartfelt intensity that, in the final scenes, comes crashing down with breathless devastation.

Memorable and alive, funny and heartbreaking, lovely and somber, this production of “Side Man,” while tentative at first, takes center stage.