Drooling on the Pillow

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Calling Max Bialystock 

We had friends from down the street in for dinner last night. We've lived in this house more than four years and just started knowing them a few months ago. That's probably my fault as Lane is much more sociable than I am.

Apparently, this little street in Jersey City used to be crawling with actors. Our friends were the first and then their friends, attracted by the inexpensive prices, started moving in, first renting, then buying, then turning over and moving on to Montclair or Maplewood. And then they were the only ones again until we moved in.

Any who.

We told a lot of theatre stories as we (even ex-actors like me) tend to do and I told one that I had completely forgotten about (for reasons that will be obvious). I know I just told one the other day, but stick with me.

One of my best friends got me a summer job in Lennox, in the Berkshires. A Connecticut producer of local commercials had a deal with a hotel on the main drag there for a summer theatre package. There were two shows we'd be doing. One was a review of American standards that was intended for the bus trade in the afternoon. The evening show was written by the producer and he saw it, I guess, as a hard hitting, transgressive, wild satirical comment on blah, blah, blah. Whatever he thought it was, it wasn't very good. On weekends we were supposed to do an extra late-night show he was sure would bring in the Tanglewood crowd on their way back to their hotels.

The afternoon show did okay. We had some nice voices. The hotel served a decent lunch. We got about all that could be got out of the evening show, but the people never came. Regarding the late night show, nobody came. We dropped that quickly.

It's a beautiful place and the waitresses were friendly. We had Monday and Tuesday off and the producer provided a van for us to come back to the city on those days. We kept hitting deer and there wasn't much left of the van by the end of the summer. All in all, except for the shows, it was a great summer.

And the shows, never what you would call good, deteriorated. I'm not proud of it, I'm not excusing it, but day after day going out there for tiny audiences (sometimes five or six people) who, for the most part, if they respond at all, were just being polite, does wear you down. It got to the point where even the geezers on the afternoon busses turned on us.

One afternoon there were, say twenty or thirty people in the audience and they weren't having a good time. Some cast members had more or less given up by this time and the show was imploding. I do not exaggerate when I say I could feel the hate coming in waves up on the stage. You could see their faces and half of them had a look of slack-jawed astonishment and the other half looked like a VFW audience at a Ward Churchill speech. They decided very quickly that we were something that shouldn't be encouraged. If you've never done a big finish with your arms out wide in that classic 'give me your love' theatrical gesture and been met with perfect silence, well, then you don't know as much as you think about humiliation.

We came backstage for intermission and huddled together like the Donner Party. No one said anything for five minutes until the stage manager came back. I turned to her and said "I really, really, really don't want to go back out there." She looked uncomfortable for a moment and then said "Don't worry. You don't have to. They're all gone."

We went out on stage and there, in the house we saw half-eaten food, full drinks and cigarettes smoking in the ashtrays. We could hear the outer door banging shut. After a moment we heard the bus zooming out of the parking lot. And we saw bus boys and waitresses start to clean up, avoiding our eyes. I wish I had taken a picture.

I wonder if it was at that moment I began to realize I was going to have a life after theater. I'd like to think my response was that rational. But I doubt it.
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