|Adventures of Daz and Alex|
Our New York Play
One afternoon Alex and I are sitting on Benny and Tita's living room floor reading and listening to the radio when Benny skims in and tells us, "You guys got the parts. First rehearsal is tomorrow afternoon."
We drop jaw and say, "What?" Then he explains that some good friends are putting together a no-budget play and they need a couple of warm bodies for small parts. He volunteered us because he thought it would add to our trip. We tell him, "You're defective," but he insists. We've decided to stay with them for a while because we're liking the New York scene, so we cave in and agree to try it.
Getting to see Tita more was worth staying with them no matter what else was flipping. If a man doesn't go vertical when he sees her braless then he's in sad shape. Benny has this hokey expression, "It's the greatest thing since the development of frontal sex," and he knows what he's talking about, Jack, because Tita is goddess plus. Front, back, side, up, down, strange, charm, any old way must be heaven with her. Damn.
Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be in love, I mean really in love, not just lust madness. I wondered for a long time if I was in love with Tracie or Leslie, the girl I met in Iowa. I don't think Alex knows about love either, although he was pretty busted up by the rejection he got tagged with in Iowa. But I think that was mostly pride, not love.
Anyway, Benny drags us kicking and screaming to the rehearsal. It's a katakana madhouse in a dirty old brick building with wheat sheaf designs embossed on its rusty sliding door. Benny told us that once upon a time it was a bakery. It's dark inside and smells like stale tortilla chips, and during late rehearsals you can hear rats scurrying around in the attic.
The director is this little guy with a close-cropped graying beard and he's wearing this button that says, "That's Mr. Fuckhead to You" and it seems to me the gig is out of control, but Mr. Fuckhead has his hand on the wheel, it's in overdrive and he's got his eyes on the road.
I never went out for the school plays much because I never gripped why it was so much fun. Plus, the type of person who got into pinstripes over it was the art-fart wear-black crowd. So I was geared down into a "show me why I should care" mode.
New York is full of real actors, so even though this was a total amateur gig I figure Benny twisted the director into giving us the slots. Either that or it's because we're free. When I ask Benny why he's so hot on us doing it, he just says he thought we're perfect for the parts. That's his joke, because all our characters did was stumble into scenes, frap everyone out and then slide off.
So we start walking through the scenes in our jeans and T-shirts, holding these ragged scripts with our parts underlined. There's little penciled-in instructions on the margins next to our lines like, "Enter quickly and come to an abrupt stop" and, "State lines with authority."
The play is a farce, where the main character is always getting caught in compromising situations. People always show up unexpectedly and he invents really cripped explanations that set up the next scene's jokes.
Alex and I play bumbling private eyes the guy has hired to find out if his partner is ripping him off. The guy is always making up some obviously fake cover for us, and our lines always blow the cover. In the opening scene, we're introduced as his long-lost British relatives and then when somebody questions us, we don't know a damn thing about England.
The main plot involves all these notes like "meet me tonight in the office" that get dropped in the wrong places so everyone shows up unexpectedly. Alex and I arrive first in every scene, get blown down fast and then leave, so our stage time is pretty short.
In the second scene we stumble into the guy's office just before his wife comes in and discovers him with this lady artist. Nothing is happening but the guy manages to look guilty as hell. He turns to us and says, "These detectives were just investigating the robbery downstairs," and then he spins off all these lies and we're supposed to support them but instead everything we say makes him look even more ludicrous. One character comes up to us in every scene and says, "Haven't I met you before?" And of course we say no, even though it's obvious we're the same guys he saw in the last scene.
Alex really gets into this phony English accent we're supposed to use in the first scene. He has the fake Brit pretty tops, "I say, guvnah, quite right, guvnah."
We get into playing around because we're bored in between our bits. We stand backstage when we aren't in the scene, which is most of the time, so we're joking around with the directors' instructions, saying stuff like, "I say guvner, I state lines with authority," and then the other guy would say, "do you now, guvnah, that's quite clever but I state lines with dismay," stuff like that.
Somehow that phrase got to be our standard riff when we're bored, so when one of the real actors is trying to act too big tent one of us would whisper, "He's stating lines with a bit too much authority, guvnah," and the other guy would say, "Quite right. A bit too strong, I say. Cool it off, guvnah."
There's one other complete amateur, this old guy named Gene who said he'd always wanted to try acting. He's thin for an old guy, not much paunch, and he wears his wispy white hair pretty long. He plays the business partner who's suspected of ripping off the main character. He doesn't have much stage time either, but he tries to make the most of it.
Mark, Mr. Fuckhead the director, is very patient with Gene, always telling him something to improve his acting, which is so bad it makes us look good. He overacts every scene, using these big gestures to show he's miffed or whatever, but his voice always makes up for it. He has this great FM voice that carries like summer thunder across the old bakery warehouse, and he'd pause in the middle of each line to make the most of it. It's so theatrical it spins Mark out.
One time Mark is watching him from the side with us and I ask him, "Doesn't Gene know he looks warped when he goes on like that?" and Mark answers, "Daz, just because he's old doesn't mean he knows more about acting than you do. That's why I put up with him."
"Because he's a beginner?" I ask.
"No," he tells me. "Because he's got guts to try something new."
"Yah," I say, "but what if you're no good?"
Mark looks at me with this frappy little grin and says, "It's not how good you are, it's finding the parts that are right for you."
"And how do you do that?" I ask.
He shrugs and says, "Try as many parts as you can."
Just then Gene is hamming up his key line, which is something like, "You're accusing the senior partner of stealing from his own company?" He says it like, "You dare to accuse... the senior partner... of stealing... from his own company?" And then he tries to look outraged.
Mark yells out, "Gene, have you ever heard anybody talk like that?"
And Gene says, "Olivier did it all the time."
Mark rolls up his script for the hundredth time that afternoon and says, "Gene, try to imagine that you really are the senior partner of a successful firm, not Lawrence Oliver doing Hamlet."
So then Gene tries it again with only two pauses, and Mark says, "Gene, try emphasizing the words 'senior partner' instead of pausing, and don't raise your arms like that. You have to actually get mad at Martin. He just accused you of stealing from him. Aren't you angry?"
Gene tries it again, and Mark shakes his head. "Gene," he shouts, "the words are somebody else's, but the feelings have to be yours."
I don't mean to make fun of Gene, because I was doing the same thing, thinking about what I was supposed to look like instead of just being a bumbling private eye. I mean, I only had about three lines per scene, but even so I could see what Mark was romping on.
I almost didn't make it through the first night. Mark told us we had two more weeks of rehearsals, but then on Wednesday he says we're launching it Friday night because of the theater's scheduling changes. I'd planned to study my lines like a maniac that last week, but now it's compression time.
So on opening night I'm standing backstage sweating, feeling totally unprepared just like this was the physics final and as usual I hadn't studied enough. All the scenes were blending together and I'm not sure which lines follow which any more. Plus I can't remember the exact words in each line. They look so clear on the page but when I put the script down my brain turns to cabbage.
My mind is spinning into panic, there's fifty people out there in folding chairs waiting for the gig to start, and even though they're all friends of Mark and the cast, I'm almost trembling. "Alex," I say, "I can't remember my lines. They're all mixed up in my brain." I'm flipping the pages, hoping I can somehow spark the memory of each scene's lines, and he looks me over and says, "Daz, it's just like a football game. You don't have to make every move right. Just do something that's more or less right."
"I don't think I can, man," I tell him, all frapped, and my tuxedo costume is already soaked with sweat.
"Look," he says. "You know what's supposed to happen in each scene, right? We come in, we say something, Martin says something back and then we say something again. You remember the jokes, right? So don't worry about the lines. Just say the jokes."
"Okay, man, I'll try," I say, and my hands are shaking like those silvery leaves on Birch trees.
He looks disgusted and says, "I can't believe this. You've always got some wise-ass thing to say. I'm the one who should be worried."
"No way, man," I tell him. "You're used to pressure."
He peeks out through the curtain and says, "Daz, everybody out there is a friend of Mark's. They don't give a damn about you."
"But if I screw it up then Mark looks defective."
"They already know Mark's defective but they came anyway," he says and then he punches my shoulder and laughs.
Alex can see I'm still wound too tight so he says, "Okay. If you screw up and can't remember when to say your lines, just look at me. If I give you a 'shaka' sign"—that's the Hawaiian hand signal where you extend your little finger and your thumb— "then just say anything you can remember of your line."
"What if I can't remember smack?" I ask, and I'm vibrating so much my mouth is dry.
"Then just repeat what the last guy said as a question," he says.
I think about this and then I say, "Alex, you're a genius." This would look pretty natural and the next guy could fake over my mistake.
"Aren't you nervous?" I ask him, and he says, "Stupid, of course I'm nervous."
"You don't look nervous," I say, and he shakes his head.
"Everybody feels it," he says. "Fricking Daz, you got to make an effort."
"Okay, but I don't know what to do," I say.
"Just remember your first line," Alex says. "That's what I do. If I think about what I'm supposed to do in the first play of the game, the rest just happens."
"Okay, Man. I'll try." So I whip open my script and try focusing on my first two lines. How could I be so stupid to wait until the last minute? My mind is still whirling with all the different scenes, it's like mashed potatoes in my head, but I make a huge effort and focus on my first line, which is, "No, the Jersey City near London." Then Linda, who plays the wife says, "I don't remember a Jersey City outside London," and I look dumb and say, "They just built it last year, mum. Veddy big project, mum," and Alex says, "Quite right, it's enormous." I just keep repeating, "No, the Jersey City near London," under my breath while the curtain goes up and the party scene starts.
Then Mark points to us and I'm hyperventilating and Alex pulls me on stage. I'm like one of those toy robots you control with a joystick, and we go over to Martin like we're supposed to. He gives us our instructions to follow Gene in a stage whisper, and then Linda joins us and our lines are coming up but I can't seem to concentrate on what people are saying, I'm circling Jupiter.
I snap back just in time to hear Alex say, "Jersey City, mum," and then Linda says, "Jersey City?", and I yell out, "The Jersey City near London, mum," and there's a few laughs and Linda says, "I don't remember a Jersey City outside London," and I say, "Um, they just built it last year, mum. Veddy big project," and I hear Alex say in his spliff Brit accent, "Quite right, mum. It's enormous," and there's a few more laughs and Linda says, "I can't imagine why I haven't heard of it. I was just in London last month," and I am incredibly relieved, the biggest relief of my whole life hits me. I've said my lines and didn't botch the whole play.
Gene leaves and Alex has to grab my arm and drag me off after him. That pulls a few laughs, like I'm the dummy partner who has to be reminded of the job, and I'm blown flat that it was funny to somebody out there even though it was really just me orbiting Jupiter and Alex saving my ass. From then on we did that every time, me acting dumb and Alex dragging me off. It always got a few laughs and those were the best laughs I ever heard.
Excerpted from I-State Lines by Charles Hugh Smith (The Permanent Press, April 2006)
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Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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