Some years ago, I did a play at a theatre I’ll call The American Acting Alliance. Sounds important, doesn’t it? Well, the building it occupied was not without historical resonance, having been part of a superior court system that was, by turns, infamously corrupt and doggedly reformist. One of its crime-fighting judges was said to have been whisked away from his chambers into the night, and possibly, New York Harbor. It was one of those stories people like to believe. It appeals to a raw sense of justice: judges can be whisked away just as easily as commoners.
Like most New York facilities that served the needs of many, the AAA had been chopped up into trackless warrens which led to large rooms and small. Most of these rooms were given over to the production of mostly bad plays and ever-erupting rehearsals. Occasionally, a good play would be produced there, as if by accident, and if it was reviewed, the writer would wonder why it had ended up at AAA. The answer is murkier than any reviewer would understand. Sitting above the fray, he or she would not readily appreciate that plays, good and bad, are a dime a dozen in New York City. Like their acting brethren, playwrights are often in the position of saying yes to the only bidder.
The man who operated the place was the sort of dictatorial personality one is given to expect in the theatre, with its eye-popping egotism and Arbitrary Rule. But he didn’t act that way until you got to know him, after which it was too late to do anything but shuffle and say yassuh! as audibly as you could stand. He was a playwright himself and had had considerable Off-Broadway success with one play. Stills from this particular production lined the walls of a longish corridor. You traversed this corridor to get to the great flight of stairs that connected you with the rest of the building, so there was no getting away from this unseemly little shrine. There on that long wall was the evidence of a single dream fully realized—or realized as much as it was going to be in this place. He’d written many, many other plays, however, and here, in this duchy of his, they were put into production. His wife - a surprisingly attractive woman conspicuously younger than he was - appeared in a great many of them. An all-round sort of guy, he directed them all himself, and with a notoriously firm hand. It probably isn’t surprising that New York City would contain an underworld of unsuccessful writer/producers. Wherever there’s an uberworld of glittering successes, why shouldn’t there be an equally complicated Unterwelt to complement them? Marginally talented people need to go somewhere too.
My play was discovered amidst a slush-pile whose breadth and complexity was—as I was would soon see—monumental. Great stacks of withered manuscript ascended to a ceiling that was lost, like the old Penn Station, in smoke and cinders. There on the bottom was the Year 1971; the middle pushed you forward into the early Eighties; on the very top you might find the teeming refuse of 1987 or 88’—an irreducible present copyrighted material from 1989 would eclipse right along. Scripts disenfranchised; scripts under review; and scripts that had been totally forgotten: these were where he lived and breathed—and would, no doubt, expire at some point.
I received a call from this Untermensch not even a month after I’d submitted my script to him. His cheerful tone was highly uncharacteristic of most people in his position, whose constipated monosyllables were wearily familiar. They did not waste words, these people. Ringing phrases like: “It doesn’t suit our needs at this time,”“Our artistic vision is limited to plays that excite us,” and “This sucks!” constituted the depth and breadth of a vocabulary that was the verbal counterpart to a form letter.
He congratulated me for having been selected as a candidate for production at his theatre. (That was more like it!) He said my play showed promise and would benefit from a little workout. (Now the criticism, but criticism leavened with hope—and a future!) He said most of the stuff he got was crap, so I was the crème de la crème—at least from that pile, on that particular day. (Being crème de la crème in any context will make your day, so I chose to forget the qualifier. I later learned that he “read” most scripts by means of a scanning technique that was part speed-reading and part gut instinct. He favored gut instinct, which was not necessarily a good thing.) Given the fatally encouraging nature of any affirmative opinion, I wasn’t on my guard until he began to explain himself. And, really, not even then everybody knew this man by reputation. His was the sort of theatre you avoided at all costs. To be there was not to be taken seriously—a kiss of death so comprehensive you should opt to do nothing rather than proffer the cheek and allow it to be smacked. I permitted myself to be seduced for the same reason a lot of writers do: nobody else was courting. I agreed to meet with him soon and discuss details, hating myself for having gone so far. Yet in my heart of hearts, I was overjoyed. He wants me! He wants me! No writer or performer who is reasonably honest can deny having experienced such an emotion, often under the basest of circumstances. It is not a good thing to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve; on the other hand, it’s there all the time, so why shouldn’t daws, crows, pigeons, and any other ornithological low-life peck at it?
I lived in a sprawling basement apartment up in Washington Heights, home to around half a million Hispanic people—and me. My block played host to an assortment of extroverts whose single purpose in life seemed to be appearing at the same time out on the sidewalk, preferably with something good to eat and a salsa band to make it taste better. The village cultures from which my neighbors had expatriated themselves thrived on such free-wheeling intercourse—though it made for a human density that could seem apocalyptic. Amidst turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that appeared to sway and buckle, these great human gatherings may have helped ease the pressure on overloaded floors and inadequate fire-escapes. It is possible that everybody went outside because they were as enamored of historic architecture as I was and wished to preserve it. I’ll never know. Their rapid-fire Spanish defied the conscientious literalism that was my only possible way in.
I was not quite a minority of one and I apologize for willfully exaggerating. I’d occasionally see other white people in the neighborhood, pilgrims from other shores after the somewhat cheaper rents in the area. Like me, they were so conspicuously out of place that they blended right in. A newspaper columnist lived up the street—as did a much-discussed local politician. A more successful playwright lived a bit farther Uptown, though I didn’t know it at the time and it probably wouldn’t have done me any good if I had. You were up there to fight your own way out.
We met at the producer’s office not even a week after he called to affirm his interest and pave the way to a real production. As I rode down on the IRT, I thought of him holding sway over the palsied imaginations of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of playwrights who were begging to be produced by someone, somehow, somewhere. And in this megalomaniacal universe, I was one of the lucky ones. God.
The Alliance Building’s façade had not been power-washed in a while and might be described as tawdrily ornate. Being drawn to ruinous things, I was instantly charmed. As I traversed AAA’s corridor for the first time, I felt that I had at least arrived. And in the literal sense of that term, I had. There was another feeling I got entering the building—a cross between “This is all wrong” and “Oh-what-the-hell-just-do-it.”
Having sorted out my response, I kept going, up a light of stairs whose deep well reeked of an industrial solvent, and on to the second floor, a place so spectacularly gloomy that it seemed as if all of the unfair sentences ever passed had gathered there—gathered at the threshold of this man’s office.
He sat behind his desk, partially visible through great stacks of paper, and greeted me cordially. He was dressed in what became a sort of Signature Outfit: tattered sport shirt above and too-comfortable sweat pants underneath. (I got a glimpse of the pants when he rose to shake my hand and they reminded me why fully grown people chose to wear them. Which was not what I wanted to be thinking about.) His grasp was firm enough, but a clamminess that smacked of Existential Terror drenched the paw I had offered him. If one were to rate a handshake on its capacity to reassure, this one wouldn’t have racked up the numbers. But his cordiality was something to hold onto, so I took a seat as directed, and listened to him map out a profile of the production I was likely to get if I could assemble my “team” quickly enough. I assured him that I could. I had a director already. And casting, well, he had a resident company himself. And if that didn’t serve, I could put an ad in Backstage and every non-Equity performer between here and Poughkeepsie would come a-runnin’.
“You are aware that you get two weekends only.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s all right.”
“I consider us a playwriting workshop. You hone your craft here. I’m not one of these commercial theatres that has to have the next Wendy Wasserstein.”
“Good,” I said, attempting to match his disdain for La Wasserstein in a single syllable.
“We’ve been here for nearly twenty years ensuring that the young writer gets a chance to see his script produced, often for the first time—but not always. When we did ‘Hunker Down Sunday’, it had been workshopped at ETA, so, well, there are exceptions to that rule. Ever see it?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Hollywood optioned it, but, thus far... well, so few real scripts get done there.” He said “there” as if there were the kind of place Incurables might be brought and abandoned. I would learn that Hollywood had killed his career. Yeah, right. Just as it was killing mine by not sensing that I existed and sending for me telepathically.
“I’m going to give you a tentative production date. Come to me when you need to audition and have rehearsal space. We have six rooms that are devoted strictly to rehearsals. Oh, and let me show you the theatre you’re going to get.” He took me up another flight of stairs to a vestibule that contained a box office and lots of double-doors. Some people were milling around. I could have sworn that they scattered when they saw him, but perhaps they were merely high-strung. Everybody knows how unpredictable theatre folk are.
“Come. Let me show you.”
He escorted me through a space whose modest dimensions didn’t surprise me. I’d seen lots of them before. The stage was about as large as a suburban-style patio. I’d written an intimate sort of play, but here the characters would be pressed against one another. I imagined them striving for the life-like inaudibility that always works better in the movies. An odor in which the attributes of decay and desperation were perfectly mingled wafted about the place. It was perfectly dreadful and absolutely characteristic—though the odor was refreshingly original. Places of a similar kind reeked of stale cigarettes, wood glue, and latex paint. These were after-notes here, taken in by the nose after the stronger stuff had passed through.
“I chose it because of the intimate nature of your play. It seemed to me that the relationships you’ve set up between Judy and her mother need to be explored in a correspondingly intimate setting.”
“It is that,” I said, speaking volumes.
“We do get critics here,” said The Man, sensing doubtfulness. “‘Hunker’ got a rave in The Times. It can happen if the material’s good enough.”
“Oh, I’m not looking for that,” I said much too quickly.
“No, but it can happen.”
He’d assigned his one-hit wonder an admiring abbreviation. It was “Hunker” now, as in “Streetcar” or “Salesman.” I was going to have to have to develop a taste for such braggadocio for as long as I would be here. And in this—if in no other thing —I was right. Once we were downstairs again, he gave me a little tour of another theatre I much preferred, but knew I wouldn’t get. It had been an old-style judge’s chambers and exuded the stately dignity that may or may not have reflected what had gone on there. But the room was grand and the stage enormous – in complete opposition to the kind of play I was doing (yet in absolute accord with a personal aesthetic whereby bigger was not only better, it was Everything.)
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
There wasn’t any sense of an impending production. The stage was bare, except for the usual work-lights, and cold air rushed in from some indefinable source. It was very pleasant to stand around and let it blow all around you: a spontaneous weather-front, a Breeze from Nowhere. We were on the cusp of a very, very hot summer. Its presence was already being felt in the way my theatre guide’s polo shirt clung to midlife mammaries he was at no pains to disguise. Why the attractive young wife, I wondered?
Perhaps at one point she thought he’d write her into the business. And still might, for all I knew. While she was clearly in the picture, she was never mentioned. “I’m not sure at the moment. Somebody cancelled, but I think I’m going to book a show in there this week. I would have given it to you, but, you see, I think about every production that’s going in here and decided against it. It’s just wrong for your play. Almost as important as starting out with the right play is starting out in the right space.”
This sententious side of him was in perfect accord with the bragging side. After a pithy observation, he’d pause as if to draw in the gasp of recognition that must follow such a thing. From time to time, I was supposed to say: “You’re so right! I would have never thought of that.” Well, some people require more nurturing than others. This man didn’t get the mother he should have had—and most desperately needed every minute of every day. The girlfriend didn’t strike me as mother material—and I sincerely hoped he hadn’t chosen to be with her on that account. I signed a little contract in his office, which bound me to a production that could last no longer than three weekends, rather than the two he’d previously allowed. He’d decided the quality of my little play deserved an extra three days. I thanked him profusely. He liked that.
We got into rehearsals as quickly as I anticipated, choosing a cast from a variety of sources, not the least of which was his resident acting company. As is often the case, some of the people were pretty good. My director and I were very keen on a woman who had a death in the family and had to drop out. When we held another audition for her character, an Ethel Merman-style actress came to dazzle us with stagecraft of a type I’d seen at theatre parties in which the musically inclined would imitate their betters. I don’t go in much for drag shows and such, but I was struck, at this particular audition, by the elusive nature of sexual identity. Here was a real woman attempting to act like a real woman, but succeeding brilliantly at seeming to be a man attempting to be a woman in the throes of a Broadway musical meltdown. After the audition was over, we all had to spread out and laugh cruelly for a time. And, of course, thank the lady by telephone later on.
We eventually found an actress for the “Ethel Merman” character by accident and were ready to go. Unfortunately, we hit a snag with the younger actress, whose audition had been wonderfully touching and thoroughly believable. But after about a week, she began to develop a caustically militant resistance to the play, the director, the space, and everything that would require her to tap into private emotions that were not routinely available to her. That is to say, she was pissed off at everything and everybody because she found, once rehearsal started, that she couldn’t act. I had never seen a woman flee a stage in tears until I saw her attempt to get a handle on the part she’d played so beautifully at the audition. The director and she had had long phone conferences in which the poor woman spewed out the sort of feelings she could have more usefully harnessed onstage. At one point, she wouldn’t allow me to come into the theatre. I complied, but my absence didn’t seem to do much for her. When I was allowed to return, she continued to give the same dreadfully wooden performance – which she herself knew to be dreadfully wooden, which made for an even more dreadful play-within-a-play. I did feel for the woman, but things were not working out and, meanwhile, the play was supposed to open in a month or so. This tormented young soul would ultimately quit, leaving us happily in the lurch until we found a replacement.
No harm done because, as it turned out, we had to postpone. While we were able to engage a younger actress, the older one had dropped out again. We couldn’t possibly mount a production in the time we had left. I went to The Man and told him as much. He was agitated in a way I’d not seen before. Throughout the casting and rehearsal process, he’d been agreeably invisible. The director would call him to reserve a space and that was that. He assumed that we were doing our work and we were glad to have him the hell out of the way.
“Oh,” he said, going through some papers. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“We didn’t know before. The woman who was doing Judy, as you know, dropped out, but we replaced her. But now our Eleanor’s had to leave the show because of another commitment, so I don’t see how we could get it done by early July.”
“No, I don’t either,” said he, tapping a pencil against his desk, his paper.
But then he shot up out of his chair and asked: “Have you seen this?” Because he was hiding the thing he wanted me to see, I couldn’t, as yet, answer him. He then appeared before me with what looked to be a kind of 4-H award. “This is the Obie I got for ‘Hunker’.”
“Yes, it is,” he said, as if I were dead-set on disbelieving it.
I studied it for a moment, checking, under his scrutiny, all the facts. After seeing the name of his play, and the year for which it was being recognized, written into a thing that had to be what he said it was, I concluded that he had won that Obie. A little skimpy on grandeur, but that’s what Off-Broadway theatre was about. It was an alternative award for an alternative experience and, as such, it fit. I saw that I needed to re-evaluate my stance about such things. But what was my stance, except that Other People got these awards? Well, here was Another Person, so my stance was right on the money. “I doubt if I see one of those for a while.”
“Aw, you might. You never know.”
After a momentous pause, during which I pretended to contemplate the grandeur before me, I said: “Can I buy a copy of that script?”
“Here, I’ll give you one.”
He reached into a cabinet that was apparently chock-full of “Hunkers” and got one for me. It was coated with the fine brown dust that was indigenous to The Office. This fine brown dust had worked its way into fundamental structures – into the seams and interstices, the deeps and the bottoms. While on the IRT, I sometimes noticed it on me and would pretend to forget about it. I would shrug to no one in particular and fight the urge to claw wildly at my neck and forearms, where it liked to settle.
“Thanks. Thanks very much.”
I’d obviously made his day, though he was not visibly moved. Perhaps he would tear up later on. He was looking at a desk calendar and pondering it. “What if I bumped you up here into August and... oh, I wanted to ask you whether you’d move operations from the Olivier to the Vershinin Theatre.”
“The big one?”
“Yes, it is our largest facility.”
“Great. I’d love to. Thanks very much. I’m sure we’ll be able to iron everything out in another month. In fact, we’re auditioning somebody here tomorrow, if that’s all right.”
“Yes, I think I’ve got you down for tomorrow.”
Once we got the play cast more or less permanently, we became invisible again, coming and going as we pleased. I’d pass Him and he’d either notice me or he wouldn’t. Having become part of a well-oiled machine, I had also become – along with everybody else in the cast—anonymous. I didn’t see Him until he appeared at the door of the big theatre we had begun to use—now that we were just two weeks away from production—as a rehearsal space. He chose to peek in during a very long rehearsal. I looked up and acknowledged Him, but he was either working at, attempting to perfect, or actually utilizing an empire-builder’s hundred-mile gaze to check on progress. The play was coming together. Lines had been learned, the beginnings of a set had materialized, and the actors had started to listen and react to each other. As I watched Him observe the scene before him, I felt a sense of pride, not only in the work we were doing, but in doing theatre unto itself. It was truly a mission, a responsibility, a great arc of consciousness that embodied all of human existence. We were past, present, and future working on this play in the great belly of an old judge’s chambers. For the moment, it was great to be alive. Came a voice:
“Could you stop for a moment?”
Nobody actually heard him except for me, so I went down to the director and asked her to convey the message to the actors. They were doing a fairly important scene, in which the mother, Eleanor, and the daughter, Judy, clash physically. When the director asked them to stop, both women looked out toward a distant prospect, like sailors sighting a storm. They were not thinking kindly thoughts. But they watched The Man march down the aisle of His Theatre and assume a central position on the stage. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I wanted to tell you that I am satisfied with what I see here. You all seem to be honing in on the spirit of this play. When I chose it, I was a little worried that people here couldn’t do this kind of play, but, when you think of it, New York is full of people from other places. When I stood at that door, I felt that I was in a different place. And I think once all of the kinks are ironed out, you’ll have a good little production on your hands. I’m from Texas myself, so I’m just one of those New Yorkers who are perfectly at home here because I am from someplace else.”
He descended the stage purposefully, then turned back to say:
“Yes, I think this could be a good little production. Carry on!” When he was unquestionably out of earshot, the woman playing Judy asked: “Who the hell was that?”
I told her. “It would be.”
“I’m glad we have a good little play on our hands,” said the woman playing Eleanor.
“You have a good little play,” said the director to me wryly.
She and I had talked about its troublesome length, which was just enough for a full evening if you took your time getting home. I thanked her, as the woman playing Judy began to wonder aloud about the reputation of the theatre and why she hadn’t originally wanted to do the play because of it. Eleanor chimed in affirmatively while the other actors appeared onstage to wonder what the hell was going on.
“He said we might have a good little play if we try really, really hard,” said our Judy, who was telling the truth about her second thoughts.
She was really too good for the place, but she wasn’t about to say it. The director reined us all in and we finished our work. On the day of dress rehearsal, He called me into his office. “I see you’re opening tomorrow.”
My manner of address had become oddly formal, a junior officer addressing a Col-o-nel with a taste for monocles. “I watched the other day. I’m sure you didn’t see me. I just wanted to see how things were going.”
“What did you think?”
“I think you have a good little play there. But I still wonder if The Vershinin’s right for you. It’s a bit large for the play’s intimate nature—as I said in the very beginning— but... it’s not the size of the theatre, it’s the size of the play that really matters.”
“I hope it expands to, uh, suit the space.”
“Well, if it doesn’t... remember that we’re a theatre workshop. We’re only a production facility in the sense that we produce plays.”
That seemed production facility enough for me, but I didn’t quibble.
“I’m going to waive your financial obligation. I don’t think I told you this, but these theatres are generally for rent.”
He hadn’t told me; nor did such an obligation appear in the contract. “Thank you very much. I...”
“Frankly, some of the plays we do are downright awful. But from time to time, I’ll need the cash-flow, so I have to compromise on quality. Because I chose yours for its artistic merit, I thought I’d make an exception. I rarely do this.”
“I’m very grateful, sir.”
“It’s not gratitude I want; it’s potentially stage-worthy plays I can look back on and feel I’ve shared in their success. I think yours is one of those kinds of plays.”
“Well, thanks... thanks very much. I’ll tell the cast what you said.”
“I’m sure they know.” I wasn’t. There was some dissension among the supporting players—neighbors who show up at inopportune moments. They didn’t seem to understand what they were doing. Nor had they ever; it had just begun to bother them here lately. Judy’s love interest—a man who would never perfect the Alabama accent I heard so very clearly when I wrote the play—was always threatening to quit.
“What’s the throughline to this character?” he’d ask the director.
“What are you trying to say here?” he’d ask me. “Why am I doing this?” he’d ask everybody and nobody.
It took a double-barreled effort to keep him with us. After a big scene, I’d nod approvingly, or walk up to him and start pumping him about recent auditions.
“You’d be absolutely right for that! If they can’t see it, it’s their problem!” He would never quite get the “throughline” of his character, but in unter-theatre, it was much harder to get a male actor than a female one. A go-for-broke mentality is, in essence, masculine. And such masculinity as could be spared on plays like this was in short supply. The guy wasn’t bad, but I suspected he wouldn’t move up and away from venues like this until he came to his senses and stopped acting.
“I’ll collect the receipts at the door. You don’t have to worry about that.”
I hadn’t thought about “the take.” We’d all been too damned busy trying to open the show on time. I had designed and built the set by myself, a daunting task even for someone who knew what he was doing. My previous construction experience had been limited to small bookshelves that hung together because I was a Structuralist for whom there couldn’t be too many nails. I was better at painting—my sole support and second profession—and was able to evoke old wallpaper with a water and sponge; wood-grain with a swooping brush; an overarching despair with be-spittled ultramarine.
“I do it for every play. Though I don’t always base my assessments of a play’s merit on box office, I like to see the cash coming in. I did a revival last year... well, it was during the summer and one night we had only two paying customers. The actors didn’t want to go on. And I can’t say I blame them. Do you remember Roland Oakley?”
“He did a lot of television back in the Seventies.”
“Roland Oakley!” I said, pronouncing the name with greater emphasis.
Still had no idea. “He came back to the theatre—against his agent’s advice—and has done nothing in Hollywood since.”
“Roland Oakley. I think I do remember seeing his name somewhere.”
“Good actor. Very gay, but you wouldn’t have known that if you saw him throw a lasso.”
He stopped short of camping it up for me, but seemed to want to.
“He was very gracious about it and went on with the show. I think his professionalism shamed the other actors. Just shamed ‘em into going along.”
“Wish more actors were like that.”
“Tell me about it. Anyway, I’ll do the receipts. Oh, and there’s one more thing.”
When certain people say that there’s one more thing, you get the sense that it was actually the first thing they wanted to talk about, but didn’t mention it earlier because you don’t lead with bad news.
“What is that?”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback, but obliged to stick around through the one-morething because he’d planned it right and made it impossible for me to do anything else.
“I provide an evaluation, based on a one-to-ten scale, to every aspiring playwright. A lot of seasoned professionals would charge for it, but I feel it’s my obligation as a workshop provider to do it for free. It’s one of the benefits of working in a noncommercial setting. I’ll bet nobody’s ever taken Chris Durang aside and tried to tell him something. Not after Yale they haven’t!”
“I know I’ll appreciate your knowledge and expertise, sir.” My voice sounded so hollow that I found myself having to look nervously at a watch I wasn’t sure I’d put on that morning. As it turned out, I had. And it was sprinkled with brown dust. The minute hand was visible, but the hour was not.
“I think I’ve told you that your play is intimate in nature. It explores relationships between people who will never really be able to communicate with each other. I think you’ve done that very well and I’m going to give you an eight out of ten. An eight is very, very good. Only a handful of other plays have done better. And one of them... well, you’d know of it. We have developed some good material here.”
On this obvious cue, I screwed my face up into a plausible mask of anticipatory excitement. In my heart of hearts, I couldn’t care less. I will even confess to being somewhat irritated at this blowhard who was about to pass judgment on something I thought He’d judged quite enough already. Well, the play would open the following night and general invisibility would be guaranteed from then on.
“On the other hand, your construction can be feeble at times. You don’t manage transitions very well. This, among other things, shows you to be a talented, but not completely developed, writer for the stage. I’m giving you a five. That’s still better than average. I don’t think I have any choice but to give the one that’s playing upstairs a two or three.”
He sensed me pulling away and came back to me.
“But not to worry. This is a mechanical problem almost anybody can master. No, you shouldn’t worry about that at all.”
“Okay, I won’t worry,” I said, a long-delayed pout creeping in.
I doubt if He heard it. He was a monologuist at heart. At His table, Other Voices went unheard.
“Nobody should take structure for granted because it is the house through which your people have to move. It’s up to you to build it in a way that your characters feel comfortable in it. Like that old shoe everybody talks about. Of course, I don’t mean house—or shoe—in the literal sense.”
He wanted a laugh. All I could give Him was a “Yes, I know.”
I looked up on his wall to see the same stills that decorated the corridor. In one of them, a broken-down rancher was bathed in a spotlight, with a female character, possibly The Man’s wife, at his feet. A closer study yielded further intelligence: this rancher was being impersonated by Roland Oakley himself – the gay TV actor who’d been so gracious on a bad night. A pile of scripts reached to the base of the spotlight’s influence. I had a tawdry little insight of my own: these dog-eared pages and faded brown envelopes formed the shallow boundary of The Man’s success. How could I feel irritated with Him after that? Easy.
“As to overall impact, I’d give your play high marks. That one scene where the mother strikes the daughter is very effective. You probably haven’t noticed me watching rehearsals, but I’ve peeked in and I’ve seen some good things. Yes, you have a good little play on your hands. I’ll give you an eight here as well.”
“Thanks very much,” I said to Him.
“That scene has come together” was said largely to myself, though it was completely audible.
Fortunately, His peroration had already begun. As He didn’t care for me talking between obviously well-prepared remarks, I let him rattle on while studying the dust-pile on the surface of my old watch. I’d found this watch in a box of things an elderly resident had dumped alongside a curb on the Upper West Side. Some days later, I happened to be in the neighborhood and saw a terrified in-law drive her away.
“As you know, dialogue is very important in the theatre. You can say what you want about plot and situation, but if a playwright isn’t in command of his dialogue, he might as well just pack it in. You probably haven’t read that review over there, but ‘Hunker Down Sunday’ was singled out for its dialogue. Hilton Somers said it had ‘a delicate aftertaste, like twenty-year old bourbon.”
He got up, as if on cue, and stood before an aging document in a diploma frame. Then He began reading from it, casting a glance my way as he arrived at words and phrases He’d obviously memorized, but wished me to savor for the first time.
“‘The clash of ancient rivalries has had its laureates in the theatre, from Shakespeare to O’Neill, but, having heard a new voice grapple with them, I am assured that they may have to make room for it someday. ‘Hunker Down Sunday’ is the sort of play they don’t write anymore—and yet it has been written. It is furthermore as heart wrenching and soul-destroying a piece of theatre as I have seen in some years. Its dialogue is piercing, but noble, with a delicate aftertaste, like twenty-year old bourbon. Its characters are full-blooded, tragically flawed men and women you must ultimately love, even if their sins are man-sized, their MO’s appallingly dysfunctional, and their ability to relate to one another miniscule.’”
After finishing up, he crossed to his desk and faced me. A Moment of Truth was upon us.
“This is the sort of review every playwright dreams about. Well, I got it. Ten years ago, I got that review. And for a play that opened in this theatre. Once word got out, everybody came to see it. Meryl Streep was here. Colleen Dewhurst sat in the second row with George C. Scott. Every critic in town came here twice. One of them, who shall be nameless, sat in that very chair and told me I was the next Tennessee Williams.”
He pounded on his desk, not for effect, but with a sort of private emphasis. I understood that the question was not meant for me, but for a Higher Power, a celestial sort of judge who might swoop down from one of the great coffered ceilings and answer it once and for all.
“Where are they now?”
He didn’t finish my evaluation that evening, or any other evening. After He’d gone back to soak up the artificial sun-rays in Somers’ prose, He walked out of the office. I followed His characteristic silhouette, made possible by a remote window that looked towards Lower Manhattan, to a remote flight of stairs I didn’t know about. Here was a man who knew how to leave a place in more ways than anybody else. He was at the theatre on opening night; a much livelier occasion than I would have thought. Standing at His card-table, He radiated joy for a few moments and disappointment for a bit longer. A spool of generic tickets sat alongside of a box full of money. The programs I’d cobbled together at a nearby copy-shop were there as well.
“You have a crowd tonight,” he said, as if a crowd were a symptom I ought to look into.
“I just wouldn’t have expected... I mean, the house for my play, which won the Obie, was half-empty until word started getting around.”
“I don’t have time for that. Either they come now or they don’t ever.”
“You have two more weeks,” He said as He tore the ticket of a female friend, who hugged me. I thanked her for coming and led her to the door of the theatre.
“My. This place sure is big,” she said to me.
“Yes. You can say that of it.”
I couldn’t study the gate because I’d taken on sound technician duties, for which I was as admirably suited as set designer. But no matter. I was well-rehearsed enough to get through it. The three weeks saw a steady decline in attendance. However, as I watched the show from my aerie above the low, chamber-style seating of the theatre, I began to think the play was pretty good. Two weeks into the production, I mounted a last ditch effort to get critics to come and see it. Something I didn’t think I should do at the outset. It was, after all, a workshop-style production that should be allowed to fade quietly. The director told me, some months later, that it had been reviewed in an Italian newspaper available mostly in Brooklyn. I called the reviewer and he invited me to sift through stacks of back issues, which failed to provide. Yet he insisted that he’d done a full-fledged review and stuck to it. (Perhaps the housekeeper had singled out that one issue for clean-up duties best left to the imagination. It was good newsprint and admirably absorbent.)
The reviewer was a successful playwright I remembered from a Raul Julia vehicle. (Julia towered, in the street-smart regalia of his character, above an old hi-fi in the study.) Hoping, decently, to raise my spirits, the reviewer said he remembered my play for being “delicate.” He was kind enough not to say it was “good” or “little.”
Closing night was a bit of a letdown. I had prepared little gifts for all the cast,mostly “joke” books about actors and acting. We never had a cast party because, with the exception of Judy, everybody seemed to live so far away: the mother in Connecticut and one of the two neighbors out on the Island. After the show was over, they had to get home. The mother had taken a room, to which she repaired on Fridays and Saturdays. She drove to her quaint little village every Sunday morning.
I submitted another play to the American Acting Alliance, which was not chosen for a production, but for a reading only. I have always blamed myself on the outcome. I’d not, for one, been able to get the cast I wanted. (The usual dropout rate was in force, but it had left me in the lurch this time; for the main character, I had to go with a last-minute replacement. Katherine Hepburn, who was theoretically available at the time, would have been my choice.) In its own way, the reading was as memorable as the production I’d received the preceding summer. Within a two-hour space, I was so savagely attacked by other aspiring playwrights that the experience seemed faintly comical—an Actor’s Nightmare writ large, an informal lynching for which no legal recourse was possible. There were no conciliatory moments; it was torture, a firing squad, with no afterlife.
He was there to introduce me, the play, and talk a bit about his “playwright’s laboratory.” He wished to give the impression of a Great Man hopping down from his summit for a little chat. It was an impression ill-served by his characteristic choice of attire. I found myself wondering what he wore to accept his Obie.
Amidst the boiler-plate, He managed to sneak in a blurb for ‘Hunker Down Sunday,” which was being revived somewhere in New Jersey, with Roland Oakley reprising the role he’d created in the original production. Before I was about to be crucified, someone raised his hand and asked whether that was Roland Oakley, the TV actor.
“It is indeed,” said The Man.
And told the story about Oakley shaming other actors into good behavior on a bad night. There was scattered applause because that’s the kind of thing that should happen in the theatre, but so rarely does.
Brett Busang claims that for better or worse, he’s been Somewhere Else pretty much all his life and, while he’s crept into Other Places, he always goes back. And sort of likes it. He wrote about another Somewhere Else in a novel called I Shot Bruce, which was published by Open Books/Escape Media last year.