Category Archives: Plays

Crucible

Salem Witch Trials 34567By Scott Ross

Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next.” — Arthur Miller, Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible’: An Artist’s Answer to Politics (The New Yorker, October 21, 1996)

Note: I realize this is only tangentially related to theatre, but it’s pertinent nonetheless.
Plus, it’s my blog, and I’ll post what I like on it.

I suspect by now the world and its brother take as a given that Arthur Miller’s 1953 Salem witch-trial drama The Crucible was his very personal response to a similar ordeal, enacted on a much larger stage than that of four centuries earlier, and one to which the playwright was by a no means disinterested observer. Fewer perhaps will understand that in the character of the Salem farmer John Proctor — in life a good deal older than Miller’s protagonist — lay a means for the author to expiate his own private sins. But an increasing, and increasingly nervous, number of citizens can now see in this essential post-war tragedy a troubling reflection of the ironic tragicomedy currently on view, not merely in his or her own national theatre, but in the smaller studio across the pond. A farce, moreover, with potentially the gravest possible outcome if the curtain is not forcefully rung down on it, and soon.

Yet there is an additional parallel reading just now which not even Arthur Miller could have foreseen when he first researched and then wrote his play, one brought home to me in the starkest terms on sitting down recently with the 1996 movie of The Crucible.

You know the story, surely, or should, if you studied the play in high school or ever attended a little theatre production or read the script in college: How Abigail Williams, besotted with love for the married man who’d bedded her, was driven nearly mad with that hopeless love burning in an adolescent brain and the attendant repression of her Puritan community; how, discovered performing in a shamanistic midnight revel, she gave forth the lie that she had seen this and that good wife of Salem disporting with Satan; that her “confession” had within its contours a darker, more hidden, purpose, that of ridding herself of her hated rival, the wife of her erstwhile lover; how the lie, catching fire, prompted other terrified girls to join in her willful delusion; and how, an entire town turning on itself, the final victim must perforce be that same man so beloved of the originator of the lie.

Try as I might to ignore the sensation, I could not hold at bay an unpleasant frisson of instant, and queasy, identification each time Winona Ryder’s Abigail Williams took the screen. The shock of recognition which precipitated this was so profound that I had often while viewing the movie to force my mind away from the uncanny and disturbing parallel I saw in it to what used in our school days to be called “current events,” merely in order to savor the beautiful means by which the picture’s director, Nicholas Hytner (before and since the great stage and screen interpreter of Alan Bennett) captured Miller’s magnum opus; the often exquisite playing of the cast (and which, aside from Ryder included Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Charlayne Woodard, George Gaynes, Mary Pat Gleason, the splendid Ron Campbell and the magisterial Paul Scofield); the economy and grace with which Miller adapted, condensed (and in some ways improved upon) his masterwork; the sumptuous cinematography by Andrew Dunn; and the equally fulsome production design of Lilly Kilvert; all of which, taken together, rendered the production far more effective and moving than any mere reading or previous production of the play I’ve so far encountered. It’s a heady thing, after all, to be gob-smocked so completely by such a perfect, unbidden historical analog to the present.

I knew this girl, I thought — this selfish, foolish, unheeding, unthinking monster of a girl, whose lies, born of defeat and panic, unleashed a holocaust she lacked both the wit to foresee and the emotional health to be anything but indifferent to.

We all know her, for she is, like Abigail, so anxious to be known… and discussed, and debated about, and defied.

Abigail Williams is Hillary Clinton.

 

“…I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.” — Arthur Miller

November, 2016: Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, desperate to create for themselves, and for her, a self-justifying narrative to explain why “the most qualified candidate in American history” had lost the late (and seemingly endless) Presidential election to a buffoonish television game-show host, holds a meeting at which it is decided that, henceforth and forever, something called variously “Russian meddling” and “Russian hacking” was to be the bogey of choice. Never mind that the losing candidate herself will go off script and, at every possible opportunity, find someone new to blame for her deserved defeat by Donald J. Trump. Russia it was to be, and Russia it was to remain.

We need not rehearse here the actual reasons for that well-predicted loss, save to note that she was, with her rival, one of the two most hated candidates in American Presidential campaign history; a single vote against him was canceled out by another — if not many others — against her.

No, I take that promise back. Let’s rehearse those reasons. They have bearing.

  • The loathing of many for the Clinton Foundation — correctly seen as a revolving-door scam dependent for its survival on one or the other of the Clintons being in office; its horrific betrayal of cash-strapped Haiti; and the shady uranium deal with Russia which (among other things) netted Bill a half-million dollars, allegedly for a single speech
  • Hillary Clinton’s penchant, seemingly pathological, for lying, usually without necessity, the lies themselves nearly always easily disproved.
  • Her transparent hypocrisy (“I went down to Wall Street and told them, ‘Cut it out!’… which the transcripts of her speeches — not released by her — directly contradicts)
  • Her reactionary social beliefs: Against marriage equality… until the percentages of those for it reached that crucial 51%… Against abortion, which she deems a matter for “a woman, her family and her pastor” and which she asserts “should be rare, and I mean rare.
  • Her warmongering, both as Senator and as Secretary of State and including the disasters of Honduras and Haiti, and the mutation by the president she nominally served of three inherited wars into seven, presumably with her avid assistance
  • The WikiLeaks revelation of the damning Podesta emails, instantly (and repeatedly) labeled “Russian meddling” when it is well-known, and well-documented, that Julian Assange received them from inside the DNC
  • Donna Brazile, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the clear rigging of the 2016 primaries by the DNC… which we now know was entirely controlled by the Hillary Clinton campaign… and which means, of course, by Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Bill: His deeply conservative tenets and acts, including NAFTA; turning much of America into a for-profit prison; his gutting of Welfare; and his utterly disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 which sacrificed a free press — without which a democracy cannot function — on the altar of corporate commerce; his womanizing and accused rapes; and his ex parte meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on that now infamous tarmac
  • Her own deep psychopathology, revealed in her laughing uproariously at the horrendous murder of a foreign leader (Gaddafi) and her serious (and repeated) questioning of why Julien Assange could not simply be murdered by drone-strike
  • Her willful ignoring of the prevailing economic woes experienced by half the nation
  • Her braying declaration that single-payer, Medicare-style healthcare for all was a pipe-dream that was “never going to happen”
  • Her willingness to means-test Social Security — to hand it over to her Wall Street pals
  • Her sneering, dismissive stereotyping of voters whose ballots she desperately needed, both Trump supporters and progressives
  • President Obama’s eight-year corporatist screwing of labor, the middle-class and working Americans, and his assertion that Clinton was his natural heir, implying her complicity in these matters, and that her election would mean more of the same
  • Her inept and arrogant campaigning style (And here, note that her official slogan was not “She’s with US” but “I’m with HER”); the equally arrogant manner with which her most vocal supporters demonized the progressive left with as much, on the one hand, indifference and, on the other, viciousness, as their goddess herself; their endless attacks on leftists on social media, much of it paid for; the incessant screaming of “Sexist!” at anyone who held reservations about her, even those who are themselves women or who campaigned for, or planned to vote for, Jill Stein; her supreme arrogance in not campaigning in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states whose support she very much needed; and indeed, the overall conceit by which she presumed we owed her our votes, and that she therefore need not come to us for them
  • The sense among many in the electorate — conservative, liberal and progressive — that a vote for Clinton was a vote for more war, more fiscal inequity, more lies and more corporatist, neoliberal, neocon policies. And, as has often been noted, when Democrats run as Republicans, the actual Republican will win
  • And, yes, those emails of hers, on that un-secured, un-encrypted, personal server; her refusal to turn said server over to the FBI; and James Comey’s corrupt and cynical refusal to prosecute her for something which, had anyone else committed it, would have resulted in that individual’s receiving an automatic jail term.

That Clinton’s only serious primary rival was speaking to tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters when she couldn’t fill a high-school gymnasium we will leave aside, for the moment, as we will the seemingly motiveless murder of the DNC staffer Seth Rich, the likeliest source of the WikiLeaks revelations. Because, of all the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing defeat which bear on this essay, none is as important as that delineated in the third clause of the first bulleted paragraph above: Doing deals with Russia.

If the first rule of political expedience is not deflection, surely it must rank snugly within the top five. The Clinton team was cognizant of and, even after the election, still nervous about, Hillary and Bill’s reciprocal dealings with Vladimir Putin’s government for personal gain, and the corrupt manner in which the Clinton-controlled DNC shoved her down America’s collective throat. Solution: Deflect. It is Trump who is dealing with Russia! They “hacked” our elections! Trump is being blackmailed by Russia! He’s a Putin-Puppet!

And so, if you doubt one word of what we’re saying, are you.

 

“…the politics of alien conspiracy soon dominated political discourse and bid fair to wipe out any other issue.” — Arthur Miller

 

However successful the Clinton team hoped its flagrant, Abigail Williams-like deflection might be, the immediate (and enduring) positive response to it must surely have dazed even them. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps these cynics depended upon, and anticipated, the fervor of the equally cynical hacks in the corporate media — and, indeed, on the minds of Trump-haters and Clinton fanatics (often one and the same) which, as a predictable result of the 19-month election cycle, had become entirely un-hinged and utterly incapable of independent thought. Indeed, the scheme could only work with a figure as hated as Trump in the White House: Someone who inspires such fevered loathing that the mere fact of his presidency is enough to blow the mental fuses of Clinton idolaters.

Not that these types — known, in honor of their idol’s campaign slogan, by the rather perfect epithet “Withers” — have ever betrayed much acquaintance with rationality. But Trump-as-President creates such widespread cognitive dissonance among them that they cannot think, much less speak, coherently. Their obscenely well-compensated, High Priestess in derangement is a quondam Rhodes Scholar whose nightly billet has of late become the pulpit from which to extol such neoliberal shibboleths as hero-worship of the FBI and the CIA, the embrace of anyone seemingly opposed to Trump — no matter who, or how dubious or indeed anti-democratic — and war with a nuclear-armed nation as the best (really, only) means by which Trump can prove to her he is not Vladimir Putin’s personal kukla. More on this anon.

Had we anything like a free press, it would still plump for war, because that is its norm. (Gulf of Tonkin, anyone? Weapons of mass destruction?) Still, one would like to believe it might also, as once was its brief, perform at least a minimal amount of due diligence by way of investigatory journalism. That it would, instead of anointing a family as corrupt and venal as the Clintons, expose their duplicity.

I am speaking here not of the specious accusations and spurious, even libelous, claims by the right which have been so loonily over the top they have forced even those deeply skeptical of Hill-n-Bill into the bitter position of having to defend them, although I would argue that the more ludicrous of these attacks have redounded to the Clintons’ benefit so perfectly they might have been planned by that pair; Fox News has done more, in its way, to deify these two than even their usual lap-dogs in the press. I refer to the easily provable: Her pathological lying, his serial abuse of women, their pay-to-play machinations. But the corporate press, as with this former First Couple’s cynical donors, is invested in them, as it is with never portraying labor or the left in anything but a negative light, if illuminating either at all: The total Anglo-American blackout by the usual suspects in the news biz of Occupy Wall Street until the Asian and European press coverage shamed it into nominal (usually sneering) coverage is a good example, as is the subsequent repeat performance when Bernie Sanders was speaking to packed houses all over the nation yet, somehow, doing so into an electronic void. One listened in vain for any airing of either event on, for example, the once great, now wholly corporatized, NPR or its British coeval the BBC.

I was reminded in 2016 of the 2004 Democratic primaries, during which Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich constituted, separately and together, the ideal choice: A pair of candidates who speak passionately and articulately to the real needs and concerns of a nation — not for endless war but for economic reform and pay equity. Howard Dean too, in those salad days before he saw the corporate light and became an unconscionable shill, had some good ideas there, as did the once shining and now disgraced John Edwards. There were, altogether, ten potentials among the Democrats, yet the media informed us, sorrowfully, that it simply could not devote the necessary resources, either of employment or of money, to cover them all. Flash-forward twelve years, to 2016, with its 17 Republican primary candidates, every one of whose campaigns, regardless of personal loopiness, received from this same quarter a sufficiency (not to say a surfeit) of coverage. This is not to mention the plastering of Trump’s visage on the airwaves, to the tune of some two billion dollars’ worth of free advertising, including the sight of his empty podium… and a telephone number for making donations. Yet fewer than a half-dozen Democrats in 2004 somehow defeated the media’s resources. Who, having heard it, can ever forget the sound of Les Moonves giggling over how much money Trump was generating for CBS?

Their real money, of course, was on the establishment neocon candidate. How else explain why so little has been made by the corporate press of Clintons’ appalling arrogance in employing un-secured routers and devices for top-secret communications, and in destroying her emails and the machines she used to send and receive them? How else justify the collective shrug given by the corporate media when the director of the Obama FBI and his minions altered an actionable charge of “gross negligence” against her to the wrist-slap of “extreme carelessness”? How else codify why the transparent rigging of the primaries — the crooked electronic votes (the actual, as opposed to fabricated, “hacking of our elections”) and the purging of voters from the rolls all over the country — by the DNC, an organization we have since learned was entirely under the control of Clinton herself? Woodward and Bernstein were working, initially and for some time, with a hell of lot less information in 1972.

George Carlin said it best: It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.

 

“The Soviet plot was the hub of a great wheel of causation; the plot justified the crushing of all nuance, all the shadings that a realistic judgment of reality requires.” — Arthur Miller

Those who have been deranged by the twin horrors of a campaign that lasted nearly half as long as an American President’s term in the White House and the spectre in the Oval Office of the loathed and derided Donald J. Trump are now, in their pique, addicted to fresh promises that this new development, or that new indictment, or the other new “revelation,” will surely spell the end for his cynosure. And the corporate media feeds that addiction, daily raising their expectations by promising the last nail in Trump’s presidential coffin. It is an addiction that pounces on the merest scrap: The appropriately tawdry and meretricious “Steele Dossier”; the firing by Trump of this or that odious aide or National Security apparatchik; the indictment by the Special Prosecutor of a baker’s dozen of Russian trolls purchasing seeming political ads on social media (after the election, please recall.)

The Democratic Party has, of course, seized on this Wither-directed pique, declaring — after, one presumes a few too many viewings of The Force Awakens — the emergence of something it calls “The Resistance” but which more impartial observers correctly deem “The McResistance.” For, as with the equally spurious “Tea Party” movement which came into existence only after a mixed-race Democrat took office, the adherents of this new “Resistance” were notably silent during eight years of corporatist Obama atrocities, not least including his more than doubling the existing wars and his stripping from the land of habeas corpus. But, unlike the Tea Partiers, who, whatever their true origin in the darkened boardrooms of Koch and ALEC, mobilized to effect a change, however dolorous, in their party, the McResistance does as it is told, donning pink caps here, massing against guns there, unable to see just how cannily (and pathetically easily) they are manipulated by the still-Clintonian DNC which robbed them of the best chance they had to defeat Trump — whose victory over their queen was predicted early but whose rival was just as convincingly proved to be able to beat The Donald, had he been given the chance. (And had he possessed the backbone to fight back against the vote-rigging and not caved so early, and so often.)

But Trump Hatred is so high that it has overwhelmed the ability for critical thought. “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” means electing a Republican in all but name merely because he is not Roy Moore. It means further marginalizing all progressive comers. It means additional rigging of votes, such as during the recent Congressional election in Florida, where erstwhile DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz retained her seat by performing on a local level what her corrupt committee enacted on a national one mere months before:  robbing Tim Canova of votes and then destroying the contested ballots. Or take the March Illinois campaign, during which the progressive candidate Marie Newman not only saw her early lead over Republican-Lite Dan Lipinksi fall, but her ballot numbers actually go down, in real-time. 20 years ago, we were warned that the electronic voting systems being ramped up all over the land and administered by the right-wing Debold Company, would surely benefit Republicans. Now, we understand, all too late, that they are also benefitting rightist neocon Democrats. Where is the outrage over this? Where the pussy-hat marchers? Too busy, one presumes, labeling any-and-everyone who disagrees with them “Putin Puppets” on Social media or over the “liberal” airways of MSNBC.

I mentioned Woodward and Bernstein in passing, above, but “Woodstein,” and Watergate, also have bearing on this essay, and on the general derangement Trump’s victory has unleashed. In Watergate, there was no investigation until evidence of a crime had come to light. This is a crucial element of a criminal investigation: Investigators, knowing of a specific crime having been committed, then examine the evidence of that crime to determine guilt. They do not go looking for a crime first. Since, as far as we can divine from the lack of evidence so far presented (and, trust me, if the various American entities gathered under that pretty little catch-all “security” had any evidence of “collusion,” they would release it) the basis on which the president is being investigated, in contradiction to all previously understood and agreed upon understanding of jurisprudence, is that very lie cobbled up by Clinton’s campaign team. And the single most dismaying, and dispiriting, upshot of all this has been the avidity with which “liberals” have supported this judicial abuse, out of pique and hatred.

The loss of such critical thinking skills (always presuming they existed to begin with) condemns the reactive and newly self-appointed legal experts to Pavlovian salivating over Trump’s “Russian collusion,” or his violation of a clause none of them had ever heard of before 2016 and most cannot properly pronounce. A progressive friend recently opined of Trump’s chicanery that he felt certain there was “a there there.” Well, yes — if you dig long enough, and deep enough, you’re bound to find something nefarious. That The Donald has gotten away with decades’ worth of shady business dealings and, on a lesser level, perpetual flummery, aided and abetted by the New York media’s slavering adulation of him, is well-known. Where were these would-be prosecutors then? Avidly devouring the latest New York Post story written by Trump about himself and copied more or less verbatim as “news” by hacks masquerading as journalists? Watching his long-running NBC game-show? Why do they only care now?

Further: That the immediate result of a Trump impeachment would be the installation as Commander-in-Chief of Vice President Pence seems not to have occurred to them. “Oh, we can control him” is the smug response, when one gets a response at all. Oh? As you have “controlled” Trump, by voting for nearly everyone he nominates and everything he wants? And, if he is so easily controlled, why the tsouris?

How well these types would have sung in the Salem Town congregation.

The elevation by the McResistance of such oleaginous types as Comey, James Clapper and Robert Mueller, its unthinking embrace of the Deep State (and yes, even former CIA officials admit it exists), its indifference to the news that a record number of former military intelligence and ex-CIA operatives are running in the 2018 Democratic campaigns, its reactionary and chilling echoing of 1950s Red-baiting, and its refusal to accept that the much-discussed release by WikiLeaks of the Podesta emails was, as William Binney and Ray McGovern of VIPS (Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) have assured us, the work of someone inside the DNC using a USB data-stick, have led to the appalling if unsurprising intelligence that fully 85 per-cent of Americans now believe something called “Russian hacking” was responsible for Trump’s election rather than, as was the case, the bulk of American voters rejecting a candidate they deemed even worse. (Another old friend, who lived through the McCarthy scare, opined recently that even Henry Kissinger would be better as president than Trump. Henry Kissinger!)

Those still capable of rational thought, who have not allowed their disdain for The Donald to overwhelm their minds, understand that, after a year and a half of investigation, if there were anything to the many and varied charges of “collusion,” we would by now be awash in evidence. Sixteen months, and what are the results? Thirteen Russians trolling for cash.

Nor does the new Red-Scare madness end at our borders. Across the pond, a Prime Minister beset on every side by the results of her own ineptness suddenly claims a pair of expatriated Russians living in Britain were “conclusively” poisoned by the Russians, on as little evidence as the Clinton team’s “Russia did it!” accusations, which is to say only their word on it. Other nations now are scrambling to deport Russian diplomats, on the word of Teresa May. International tensions, as they say in the news biz, are escalating, and there seems daily a greater chance that this spurious, un-proven (and, I daresay, unprovable) nonsense could eventuate in war with a nuclear-armed nation. Worse, the incessant Red-baiting and baseless charges against Trump make it nearly impossible for him to deal in any reasonable fashion with Putin; should he attempt to quell these ludicrous and easily avoidable tensions, the predictable cries of “See? He’s in Putin’s pocket!” will shortly deafen the airwaves.

And so the 21st century Abigail Williams, unlike her 17th century counterpart, has, in her avidity to deflect her own Uranium deal with Putin onto the new President, endangered not merely her small community or even her state, but the entire globe. This makes her both more and less than her historical coeval, who wanted merely a man she could not have, and when even that modest desire fell to ruin, departed the scene. Abigail-Hillary, by contrast, never shuts up. She and her disciples (the latter of whom, again unlike those in Salem, don’t even — because they cannot, or their entire sense of self will come crashing about their dangerously empty heads — recognize how well their leader has played them) seem to want the very end of their world, as long as they feel a little better about themselves for in the millisecond they, and we, have before the first bomb drops.


Copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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Filed under Essay, Plays

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

By Scott Ross

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

Very probably the last thing one should do if one is a slave, as I am, to chronic depression is either read a Dickens novel, or view the adaptation of one.

Why I chose this moment finally to sit down with the eight and 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby I really can’t say, except that I’ve had the boxed set of DVDs for years, the depression longer, and I’m not getting any younger. Still… If one has any sensitivity at all, then meandering through Dickens is an act virtually guaranteed to exercise it; when your emotions are raw, close to the surface, and crying jags come easy, it’s going to be a trial. And assaying this particular Dickens novel is just asking for it.

 

Nickleby TIME coverKnowing the text likely makes it even worse, and Nicholas Nickleby has been a part of my cultural life for over three decades now. I did not see the original London or Broadway productions, but I certainly remember the Time magazine cover story and the attendant controversy over its then-exorbitant $100 ticket price, which now seems the veriest pittance. When it was taped for British broadcast and no American network would touch it, Mobil, to its eternal credit, picked it up and ran it in syndication, over, if memory serves, four consecutive nights. I can still vividly recall the excitement with which I waited to partake of that evening’s installment, and the nearly complete satisfaction it gave me. In the interim came the surprisingly accomplished 2002 movie version, a veritable Secretariat of the cinema by way of contrast, one that somehow managed to encompass the narrative in a mere two hours and 12 minutes. About a decade ago, I finally cracked the novel itself, whose length had always intimidated me. It was a splendid experience, although I did long, finally, for it to end; ennui sets in around the 900th page of almost anything.

Last week it all came full-circle, as I revisited the television edition. I knew the tears would flow and, in my present state, all too copiously. How could they not, what with Dickens’ mastery of emotional manipulation, exacerbated by the magnificence of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s resolutely powerful and magnificently theatrical staging, and pushed through the histrionic stratosphere by David Threlfall’s astonishingly moving Smike and the pluperfect Newman Noggs of Edward Petherbridge?

I recognize in Smike the author’s perennial favorite, the child or youth (usually, but not always, a boy) smashed, or nearly so, by the endemic Victorian system of, on the one hand, callous indifference and, on the other, active collusion in his destruction. We see him in Oliver Twist, in David Copperfield, in Pip, in Jo the crossing-sweeper and, on the distaff side, in the Littles, Nell and Dorrit. Sometimes triumphant, sometimes doomed, yet always striving against insuperable (when not downright malignant) odds. Smike is, in his way the ne plus ultra of the type: Not only shockingly poor, ill clothed and ill fed nor even merely physically crippled but mentally and emotionally damaged, seemingly beyond repair… and utterly beyond resistance to the emotionally susceptible. And, in my heart of hearts I know that Newman Noggs is, like the impossibly decent Cheeryble brothers, too good to be true. But I can’t imagine not being moved by the performances of Threlfall and Petherbridge.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Threlfall does miracle work with Smike, somehow (and even granting that the actor augments the character’s mannerisms well beyond Dickens’ less extreme description) never asking for pity no matter how piteous the character’s physical tribulations and emotional woes, or how pitiless the vicissitudes that attack him. It is, I think, that very resolution and restraint which make him so unutterably heartbreaking.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

As Noggs, Petherbridge’s every gesture and remark is perfection itself. If ever a character was perched on the precipice of manipulative self-pity, it’s Newman Noggs. Petherbridge has a way of seeming almost casually ironic, as if Noggs’ bibulousness has so simultaneously slowed and sped up his normal reactions that his sarcastic asides and small, bitter observations are barely perceived by his listeners, seemingly uttered without rancor and, indeed, with a kind of self-effacing apology. Timid yet sardonic, incalculably decent but neither overly nor even overtly sweet, he embodies the infinite hope of the essentially hopeless.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

In this production, even the impenetrably cold Ralph Nickleby is moving, especially in John Woodvine’s stunning performance. So too, against all odds, is Emily Richards’ Kate Nickleby. The novel’s Kate is less a full-bodied character than a set of Victorian poses; she’s Virtuous Young Womanhood hideously importuned and victimized, and she reads as the literary equivalent of all those damsels in distress that render much silent movie acting of the early years so absurdly fustian. (And which Debbie Reynolds memorably poked fun at in Singin’ in the Rain.) Edgar, Nunn and Caird come in for some of the credit here, I suppose, but the achievement is, ultimately, Richards’. Her Kate is intelligent, stalwart, brave, despairing… but never bathetic.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck's throughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck’s thoroughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Ben Kinglsey originated the pivotal role of Whackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, at the RSC. By the time of the taping, Kinglsey was, due to his performance as Gandhi, a major movie presence; in his place was the alternately hilarious and terrifying Alun Armstrong. The protean Bob Peck is, astonishingly, equally effective as the uncouth yet decent John Browdie and the genteel and infinitely damnable Mulberry Hawk. Not only is he virtually unrecognizable as the same actor, his very vocal timbre alters: First deep, warm, resonant and full of bonhomie (Browdie) then high, cold, sneering and filled with malice (Hawk.) It is Hawk who is perhaps the most puzzlingly Iago-like character in Nicholas Nickleby. His every impulse is to the destruction of others, for its own sake, far above the lure of the pecuniary. Even Ralph is more explicable. But as thoughtfully ironic double casting, Peck’s contrasts could not be sharper.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

The same holds true for Suzanne Bertish, who makes a splendidly spiteful Fanny Squeers and a charming Miss Snevellici, both ardent and, ultimately futile, suitors of young Nicholas. Lila Kaye is adorably hammy as Mrs. Crummles and a scarifying termagant as Mrs. Squeers. Of the nominal villains, Janet Dale’s mercurial Miss Nagg is nicely complimented by her hysteria as the absurd Mrs. Wititterly, while Nicholas Gecks’ Lord Frederick Verisopht is the most beautifully delineated of Kate’s tormentors. His features soft, sensual and Byronesque, his manner languid and foppish, he is seemingly indifferent yet becomes the single character who most effectively stymies the machinations of Hawk, at the cost of his own life, which he relinquishes with sad, manful irony. And, being me, I must also note the presence, in several small roles, of Stephen Rashbrook, the most boyishly beautiful of the male actors in the ensemble. He quite literally took my breath away every time the camera caught his almost ethereally lovely face.

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in "Nicholas Nickleby."

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in “Nicholas Nickleby.”

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

As Nicholas, Roger Rees seems less efficacious to me now than he did in the early 1980s. Too much of his performance is pitched on sheer nerves, his limpid eyes always threatening to overflow, his infrequent outbursts of rage muted rather than enhanced by the emotionalism he displays throughout. It must be a difficult role to get right, and I do not mean to imply that Rees is by any means bad in it. He gets Nicholas’ overmastering decency, and his impulse to compassion, exactly, especially in his interactions with Smike. But at nearly 40, he was a bit long in the tooth to be wholly capable of expressing the young man’s essential naïveté. Charlie Hunnam’s much more youthful Nicholas in the 2002 movie was rather closer to the mark in that respect, and he had the built-in advantage of being young.

Far more problematic is the video direction by Jim Goddard. First, there is the disturbingly occasional glimpse, or sound, of the live Old Vic audience, in a series otherwise obviously taped without one. As Nunn and Caird utilized the theatre itself in their staging, a complete record of the production virtually demanded the spectators’ inclusion. And while I can understand the impulse to capture the thing without the constant, and intrusive, sounds of laughter and applause from the audience, the result is a curious hybrid that does not solve the problem satisfactorily.

Worse, Goddard often places his visual emphases in an almost arbitrary fashion, spoiling Nunn and Caird’s stage tableaux either by focusing in too close on a grouping or, weirdly, cutting away from a moment, or an actor’s performance, to its utter detriment. A perfect example of this striking ineptitude is the moment when the marvelous Rose Hill as Mrs. Gruden ends her hilarious coloratura trillings, begins the verse of her “Farewell” song and only then grabs a lungful of air. Rather than hold on the performer for maximum comic impact, Goddard cuts, incongruously, to Nicholas and Miss Snevellici. His direction is filled with such inexplicable lapses, often numbing when not outright killing the effect of Nunn’s and Caird’s stunningly expressive theatricality. The A&E presentation is likewise annoying: Rather than presenting the series as it originally appeared, the video set climaxes each hour of the thing with end-credits, superimposed over the Old Vic audience going mad for what was, quite obviously, the final curtain call.

Still, as a record of an unforgettable event, this Nicholas Nickleby will do. Aside from the variety and assurance of the RSC company and its directors, and the starkly utilitarian splendor of the settings by John Napier and Dermot Haye, the home video set also captures the late Stephen Oliver’s* superb underscore and songs and David Edgar’s subtle genius at distilling a massive novel, retaining as much of Dickens’ more pointed observational prose as a stage can reasonably contain, presenting the narrative and the characters with fealty, and doing so in a way that is both epic and intimate — and, always, appropriately theatrical. No small thing, that, and for a frustrated actor like Dickens himself, a fitting tribute.

If one has to cry, there are certainly worse things to weep over.

David Edgar.

David Edgar.

*Oliver, a formidable composer of opera, succumbed, as did far too many of his male contemporaries, to AIDS, in 1992.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Filed under Essay, Personal Hisotry, Plays, Theatre

A Liberal Education: Excerpt from Act One [Opening]

A Liberal Education

by Scott Ross

 

DESCRIPTION OF PLAY

A Liberal Education describes the downward spiral of a man in the throes of personal and sexual obsession during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is concerned with public and private duplicity—personal, ethical, sexual and political—and the ways in which ideals are either corrupted or destroyed by shadow politics. The play begins in 1981, with the first newspaper article concerning the deaths of a number of gay men from a mysterious cancer; the action carries through to 1986, when AIDS has become a full-blown pandemic.

The central character is Nick Halpern, a young gay writer. Nick’s attempts to investigate the life of a closeted homosexual man named Michael Kelly, a fund-raiser for right-wing Republican politicians, sets the play in motion. After unwittingly sleeping with Kelly (who uses an alias), Nick’s fury at being duped becomes an obsession. His determination to expose Kelly is fueled by his simultaneous personal revulsion and sexual desire.

Kelly is equally attracted to Nick, and far more amused than threatened by Nick’s threats of exposure. He senses that the two are more alike than Nick cares to admit, and is so insulated by his political connections that he can never lose—even in death. Kelly plays his cynicism against Nick’s naivete, engaging him in a series of philosophical debates as his attempt to “instruct” Nick in the ways of the political world.

When Nick’s curiously symbiotic relationship with Kelly becomes overtly sexual, the extended liaison leads to the loss of Nick’s partnership with the actor Sandy Peoples (who later dies from HIV/AIDS complications); the estrangement of his friendships with David Kearns (a Washington lobbyist for gay causes), Sheree (his book editor) and Sheree’s younger lover Jo; and finally, his own health as he succumbs to the HIV virus.

Nick’s relationship to Sandy is complicated by his desire to see his actor lover come out, and by Sandy’s fear of doing so. When he becomes ill, Nick is no longer around to care for him. Sheree champions a book of essays by Nick, but is later a target of Nick’s paranoia—which is turn is fueled by Nick’s increasing dependence on cocaine as his relationship to Kelly becomes darker and more perverse.

If the play has a fixed moral center, it is David. Somewhat effeminate and seemingly ineffectual, it is David who remains truest to his own ideals. Even when forced to turn his back on the heartbreak of lobbying indifferent politicians in the face of a pandemic, David’s essential decencies remain intact. Although the politically impregnable Kelly ultimately triumphs over Nick’s self-righteousness and naivete, even as his own health deteriorates, in the play’s coda the terminally ill Nick, vague of mind and uncharacteristically gentle, is “forgiven” by David.

The action of the play is continuous, and the events occur in New York City or Washington DC. A Liberal Education should be performed on a simple unit set with minimal props and furniture. The lighting should be designed to indicate change of time and, with the set, venue.

The following is the opening sequence of the first act.

ACT ONE

(The actor who plays JO speaks.)

JO:

Washington, D.C. 1981.

(Music in the dark: the last few bars of a country-western swing band tune. MICHAEL KELLY appears on a level at stage left, facing out. Below him, at floor level is DAVID, perpendicular to KELLY. KELLY speaks in a folksy manner, complete with broad—but not cornpone—Southern accent.

(The music fades.)

KELLY:

As most of you know, my name is Michael Kelly. And I want to say a few words about the reason we’re all here.

(DAVID is considerably less ebullient than KELLY; more resignedalmost depressed.)

DAVID:

I don’t need to tell you what we’re up against these days. Or maybe I do. Because, no matter how often we bring you the message, too many of you just don’t get it.

(The following duologue should gradually build pace, to the point where the lines of dialogue begin to overlap.)

KELLY:

We have the money—

DAVID:

They have infinitely greater amounts of money.

KELLY:

We have the power—

DAVID:

They are willing to spend that money.

KELLY:

And now we have—

DAVID:

They have leadership.

KELLY:

—the White House.

DAVID:

They’re not in any closets.

KELLY:

Now we must share that money.

DAVID:

They are in control.

KELLY:

So, give, to keep our control. To shut out—

DAVID:

They own the media.

KELLY:

—the ceaseless drone of the liberal media—

DAVID:

They have dozens of lobbyists—

KELLY:

To help our lobbyists’ work.

DAVID:

We have three.

KELLY:

To reverse Rowe v. Wade—

DAVID:

So I’m asking you—

KELLY:

Stop homosexual teachers—

DAVID:

—no, I’m begging you—

KELLY:

—get prayer back in our schools…

           DAVID:                                                                      KELLY:

(Simultaneously)

          —to give.                                                                   So, give.

KELLY:

So that we may receive—

DAVID:

For our basic rights.

KELLY:

—a nation built on American values—

DAVID:

It’s our America, too.

KELLY:

—and our sacred beliefs.

DAVID:

Today is already too late—

KELLY:

And remember…

DAVID:

What about tomorrow?

KELLY:

It’s only the first million that hurts. Thank you.

(KELLY exits, waving energetically.)

DAVID:

Thank you.

(He moves, unsmiling, to stage right.  Lights change slightly. NICK is discovered drinking a bottle of beer, lost in his own thoughts. DAVID creeps up behind him and grabs him, cheered to find his friend.)

Nicky! You made it after all.

(Kisses NICK on the cheek. NICK smiles and hugs DAVID back. They exchange a kiss.)

NICK:

You look good enough to eat.

DAVID:

Don’t make promises you don’t plan to fulfill. Sorry I couldn’t meet you sooner. Your call was so late. And after the appeal, I had to extricate myself from the clutches of that odious George Templeton.

(NICK gives him a blank look)

In the immortal words of Zsa Zsa Gabor, “I hate dot qveen!”

NICK:

I’m sorry—?

DAVID:

Queen of Outer Space? It’s a B-movie? Oh, never mind.

NICK:

No, George who?

DAVID:

You remember him. Supercilious clone. Heir to some ubiquitous fortune or other.

NICK:

Sorry, I—that was a terrific speech, David.

DAVID:

Which one? Oh— thanks. For all the good it’ll do. I’ve been canvassing all night, and so far the money I’ve raised should be just enough to pay for my boutonniere. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.

NICK:

Well, I’m glad you do.

DAVID:

Even if it means having a permanent indentation on my head from banging it against the wall?

NICK:

Even then.

DAVID:

Fine, I’ll send you my Tylenol bill. Listen, can we take the air? I’m having a reaction to all this Pierre Cardin.

(They walk out of the banquet hall and into the Washington streets)

If only I’d known sooner that you were coming. I’d have mussed the bed sheets a bit for effect.

NICK:

(Putting his arm around DAVID’s shoulder)

David’s love-life—the one constant in an inconstant world.

DAVID:

I speak sooth. Your message was a bit cryptic. What is it you’re doing here, again?

NICK:

I’m researching a story for The Village Voice—about gay men in Iran under the Islamic Revolution.

(DAVID shudders)

I know—I can’t imagine the nightmares they must have.

DAVID:

I can’t imagine the nightmare they must live. How long are you gonna be in town?

NICK:

A few days, maybe a week. Can you stand me sleeping on your sofa that long?

DAVID:

Stay as long as you care to. I may not be in much, but you can entertain yourself, I imagine. Actually, I don’t want to imagine.

NICK:

(Playfully hitting DAVID on the arm)

Bitch.

(Suddenly quite serious)

Davy, what if anything, do you know about a man named Michael Kelly?

(The name causes DAVID to blanch. He recovers quickly and goes for nonchalance.)

DAVID:

Why? What have you heard?

NICK:

Not much.  Rumors, mostly.

DAVID:

(As they sit on a platform that serves as a bench or wall or fountain edge)

Okay—you know about PACs—Political Action Committees?

NICK:

Sure.

DAVID:

The more right-wing ones do especially well with Southern politicians. Like a certain senator from North Carolina. Well, that happy, transplanted Tar Heel Michael Kelly is just about the best little fascist fund-raiser in the business. Rumor hath it his parties helped cinch the last Senate election there.

NICK:

He got Helms re-elected?

DAVID:

You didn’t hear that from me.

NICK:

Transplanted, you said. Where’s he from?

DAVID:

His family came from one of those medieval states—Alabama, Mississippi—I forget which. He divides his time now between Raleigh and D.C.

NICK:

Okay, here’s what I don’t get. This Kelly—

DAVID:

Has steel-reinforced closet doors. Except that everyone knows it. I hear he’s a regular at a certain Beltway cat-house. Tom cats only. Arrawwr.

NICK:

Okay, but if everyone knows he’s gay—

DAVID:

Honey, you are gay. I am gay. Michael Kelly is a ho-mo-sexual.

NICK:

Very much practicing, I take it.

DAVID:

Insatiable. I hear.

NICK:

So, why’s this guy is so hot for the Bill Buckley set?

DAVID:

I would know?

NICK:

Sorry—rhetorical. Have you ever seen him?

DAVID:

Lord, no. Don’t want to. Why? Can’t you find a photo?

NICK:

Not so far. From what you hear, then—attractive?

DAVID:

From what I hear? Very.

NICK:

And very wealthy.

DAVID:

Yes, but that’s less important around here than you think.

NICK:

(Teasingly)

Snob. So, which is shallower: attraction to surface beauty or lust for money?

DAVID:

It’s a question of degrees, that’s all. One just a little less shallow than the other. I mean, money you can only spend once. A pretty face you can wake up to indefinitely. You could, anyway.

NICK:

Oh, stop.

DAVID:

I’m just being honest. If my dance-card ever gets filled, you’ll be the first to know that, too. Power’s the great aphrodisiac here. Which explains why I’ve been so very successful.

(He stands)

I’d better get back.

(They walk back to the banquet)

A word of warning, Nicky. About Kelly? Be careful. You know about jasmine: The sweeter the fragrance, the deadlier the poison. Keep an antidote close by. Oh! Did you see my friend Sandy?

NICK:

Sandy.

DAVID:

Obviously not. Sandy Peoples. He’s been after me for months now to introduce you two.

NICK:

The actor?

DAVID:

No, the brick-layer. Dope. He’s in a show at the KennedyCenter. I called him this afternoon when you ‘phoned. He said he’d come. Hm. I didn’t think he had a performance tonight … Well, Sandy is pretty closety.

NICK:

You staying much longer?

DAVID:

Have to make the appointed rounds. If I get really desperate I may do a strip-tease. That should clear the room.

(He looks off and spots a pigeon)

Hmm. I see potential. Economic, I hasten to add. Even more important than the other kind.

NICK:

Especially now.

DAVID:

Oh, god. Well, as my mother said when she struck me from the will, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ll see you back home.

(Starts to leave, turns back)

Oh! Give Tony a call, will you?

NICK:

Tony Blake? Sure. Why?

DAVID:

He found a couple of marks on his leg he can’t identify. You know what a hypochondriac he is.

NICK:

Yeah, I know.

DAVID:

His lover’s left him and he’s lonely and scared, so please don’t wait too long. Oh, and when you call? Play dumb.

(He exits. NICK stands, musing, for a moment. Then he wanders off with the bottle, loosening his tie. Lights indicate scene change, and we’re in a bar. Flashing lights, loud disco music. NICK, now rather inebriated, sits with his beer, observing the clientele. KELLY watches NICK from the side for a beat or two, then comes over. He now speaks in a soft voice with a trace of Southern accent at the edges. The music softens a bit but remains obtrusive.)

KELLY:

Hi.

NICK:

Hi.

KELLY:

What’re you drinking?

(NICK holds up his bottle)

I’ll buy you another.

NICK:

Don’t bother. I was just about to leave anyway.

KELLY:

Oh? Can we talk a bit before you go?

NICK:

You’re talking now.

KELLY:

Name’s Andy.

NICK:

Nick.

KELLY:

Where you off to, Nick? It’s early.

NICK:

Late for me. Just came to meet a friend.

KELLY:

Who didn’t show.

NICK:

You, uh, been watching me, Andy?

KELLY:

For some time, Nick.

NICK:

It’s a very loud place. I can barely hear you.

KELLY:

I could speak louder. Or move closer.

NICK:

There’s an idea.

(KELLY moves, brushing his thigh up against NICK’s.  He leaves it there.) 

KELLY:

Better?

NICK:

Better.

KELLY:

We could go somewhere a little quieter.

NICK:

I’m hearing more clearly all the time.

KELLY:

You live here in town?

NICK:

No, just visiting.

KELLY:

Staying with friends?

NICK:

A friend.

KELLY:

A “friend” friend, or a … friend?

NICK:

A friend. I’m just here to do a little … research.

KELLY:

Perhaps I can assist you in your … research?

NICK:

(After a beat)

You can hold my flash-light.

(Beat.  He breaks up.  KELLY smiles.)

I’m sorry. You’re drunk, and I’m cute. Uh—the other way.

KELLY:

Not too drunk?

(NICK shakes his head in the negative)

Want to go?

(NICK nods in the affirmative)

NICK:

(He touches KELLY’s chest with his index finger)

You live alone?

KELLY:

(Placing a hand on NICK’s upstage cheek)

For the moment.

(They smile at each other and leave the bar together. A cross-fade to KELLY’s townhouse. The platform now sports a long sheet, folded. The disco music fades and is replaced by a slow, low jazz recording—Billie Holiday’s “Stormy Monday,” perhaps. NICK and KELLY began to dance, slowly. The lighting is very subtle, dim, seductive. After a beat or two, KELLY puts out his hand and opens a button on NICK’s shirt. NICK stands, swaying to the music, as KELLY undresses him. He finishes unbuttoning the shirt, slips it off NICK’s torso and tosses it to one side. NICK kicks off his shoes. KELLY kneels and reaches for the snap on NICK’s trousers. He unsnaps them, lowers the zipper and pulls them over NICK’s feet. When NICK is clothed only in his briefs, he and KELLY go to opposite sides of the platform and unfold the sheet, then climb in under it. They embrace as the lights dim to a seductive, shadowy noir darkness. The music fades. The lights come up again. Morning. KELLY, awake, leans over the still-sleeping NICK—who in the darkness has slid his briefs down to his knees under the sheet. KELLY looks at him a beat, then kisses his arm. He moves up to nuzzle NICK’s neck, his hand caressing NICK’s chest. NICK stirs, rolls onto his back, looks sleepily at KELLY.)

NICK:

’morning.

KELLY:

Hi.

(NICK leans toward KELLY, his mouth poised for a kiss)

Tell me something.

NICK:

Mm?

KELLY:

Enjoy yourself?

NICK:

Mmmmmm.

(He moves to kiss KELLY)

KELLY:

I don’t fuck like a Republican?

NICK:

                                                            (Beat)

Uh… What?

KELLY:

You once wrote, I believe, that Republican queers make love like they vote—now, what was the phrase? Oh, yes: under the covers and ass-backwards.

(NICK takes his hands from KELLY and scoots to his side of the sheet)

NICK:

You certainly seem to know who I am, but—

KELLY:

Nick Halpern, Michael Kelly.

(Long pause as it filters through the alcoholic fog of NICK’s mind. Then NICK sits up, fast)

So pleased to meet you, Mr. Halpern.

(Beat)

My, my. Yankees are so impolite.

(NICK reaches for his shorts and puts them back on under the sheet)

So modest.

NICK:

Can’t say I care very much for your style, Mr. Kelly,

KELLY:

You liked it well enough last night.

NICK:

Last night things were different. Your name, for example.

KELLY:

Is Michael Anderson Kelly. I use the middle name or its diminutive when the occasion warrants. And the benefits seem worth the effort.

NICK:

Can you tell me where my shirt is, please?

(KELLY picks up the shirt form the floor beside him and holds it out.  NICK takes it.)

Thank you. 

KELLY:

Your ardor has certainly cooled, Mr. Halpern.

NICK:

I’m always a bit ugly the morning after a deception.

KELLY:

And how were you deceived, may I ask? Such melodrama.

NICK:

Cut the fucking Tennessee Williams. Just tell me why.

KELLY:

Why not?

NICK:

Forgive me if I fail to return the compliment.

KELLY:

Well—who woke up on the wrong side of the fuck this morning?

(Rolls over, his back to NICK)

NICK:

Shoes, please.

(KELLY points to the shoes without turning around. As NICK gets them, KELLY sits up again, amused. NICK sits on the edge of the sheet to put on his shoes.)

KELLY:

Was I really all that bad?

NICK:

How would I know? I was drunk, remember?

KELLY:

(Putting his arms around NICK from behind and caressing his chest)

Not that drunk.

NICK:

(Pushing KELLY’s arms away)

David Kearns was right about you.

KELLY:

(Laughing)

David Kearns. A silly little faggot who wastes a great deal of time and money drawing attention to himself.

NICK:

At least David cares about something larger than—

KELLY:

Oh, next you’ll be asking me how I live with myself.

NICK:

Well, not to put too fine a point on it—

KELLY:

Very well, thank you.  How does anyone?

(After a beat)

Mr. Halpern—oh, may I call you Nick? I cannot of course speak for you, but I had a marvelous time last night. You’re a talented partner. And you look so cute in your skivvies. But I’ll be completely honest with you.

NICK:

Won’t that be refreshing?

KELLY:

(He takes NICK’s arm lightly)

You can fuck me, Nick, and we may both enjoy it. But don’t you ever

(His grip tightens violently)

— fuck with me. You’ve spoken to people who know better than to tell you anything without coming to me first.

(Lets go of NICK’s arm)

NICK:

Thanks for the tip. I’ll be more discreet next time.

KELLY:

There won’t be a next time, Mr. Halpern.

NICK:

What happened to “Nick”?

KELLY:

Don’t write about me. I can make things very unpleasant for you, and I’d hate to do that.

NICK:

Is that a threat?

KELLY:

A perfectly legal one. You don’t have the money it would take to fight any sort of libel suit, so drop it.

NICK:

Drop what?

KELLY:

You’re innocent, all right, but not that innocent. And don’t be too surprised that your rendez-vous last night never showed up. He had … second thoughts. You really should have a clearer picture of your quarry, you know. Foolish.

NICK:

Is it my fault no one in New York knows you exist?

KELLY:

Am I to be insulted? Or flattered?

NICK:

Funny about that—I couldn’t find a picture.

KELLY:

I don’t get photographed.

NICK:

Don’t? Or can’t? When you pass a mirror, do you cast a reflection?

(Beat)

What was your purpose with this?

KELLY:

I wanted you to know who you’re dealing with. And there were … compensations.

NICK:

Am I dismissed now?

KELLY:

That’s entirely up to you. You’re more than welcome to stay. I haven’t spent the better part of the day in bed for quite some time. And you’re rather sweet, when you aren’t shooting your mouth off about things you can’t begin to understand. But then, I lack your refined, ethical standards.

NICK:

You said it, babe, not me.

KELLY:

Was I really a fate worse than death, Nicky?

(Beat)

I love that self-righteous look. Brings out the color in your cheeks. Your problem is, you take sex far too seriously. It isn’t always the prelude to something finer.

NICK:

Or a means to an end.

KELLY:

That’s where you’re mistaken. Most often, it’s nothing more nor less than a good time.

NICK:

I’ll remember that.

KELLY:

It certainly isn’t enough to make a political movement out of. Now, either take off your pants and come back to bed, or get the fuck out of my house.

(NICK doesn’t move. KELLY rolls over, pulling the sheets around him. NICK stares at him for a beat or two, then moves off, dazed, into the darkness. The lights on KELLY dim out, coming up on the opposite side of the stage: DAVID’s apartment. NICK lies on the floor, an empty bottle overturned near his hand. DAVID enters holding a folded newspaper.)

DAVID:

Nicky?

(He sees NICK, goes to him. He notices the bottle and moves it, then bends over to shake NICK’s shoulder)

Nicky, wake up.

(NICK groans, rolls over)

Nicky—

(He pulls NICK to him, rather like a Pieta. NICK sits up gingerly, holding his head)

Someone didn’t come home last night.

NICK:

When was last night? Ungh. What time is it?

DAVID:

After six. That’s P.M.

(Picks up the bottle)

What were you trying to do?

NICK:

Lose my memory.

(After a beat)

This goes no further than this room. Okay?

DAVID:

Okay.

NICK:

I mean it, David.  You repeat this, I swear I’ll kill you.

DAVID:

Okay, okay! Jesus—

NICK:

This morning, I woke up next to Michael Kelly.

(DAVID reacts, then catches himself)

DAVID:

Sorry.

NICK:

I didn’t know.

DAVID:

I believe you.

(Beat)

Was he good?

NICK:

Davy!

                                                            (Beat.  DAVID looks skeptical)

He was … all right. Until he opened his fucking mouth.

DAVID:

Only all right? Hm.

NICK:

It wasn’t so special.

DAVID:

Right.

NICK:

Just another night.

DAVID:

Uh-huh.

(Beat)

Then how come you’re stinko? So you got fooled into sleeping with a creep. I said he was probably pretty cute. And you enjoyed it. Maybe your head danced with brief visions of domesticity. And you would have come back for more if he hadn’t told you who he was. And that is why you smell like Rasputin’s BVDs. So, kick yourself for a while and then chalk it up to Lessons Learned or Things We’ll Never Do Again, and eventually—you’ll forget it. It never would happen again, right?

(Beat)

Right, Nicky?

NICK:

Of course not.

DAVID:

(After looking curiously at NICK for a beat)

Anyway, I’ve got more important matters on my mind right now than your sex-life.

NICK:

                                                            (Distracted)

Like what?

DAVID:

You didn’t see the New York Times this morning?

NICK:

What’s in the Times?

DAVID:

Did you call Tony Blake like I asked you?

NICK:

Oh, fuck. No. Sorry.

DAVID:

Remember what I told you? About those marks on his leg? He had heard there was some kind of “gay cancer” going around.

NICK:

Diseases don’t make sexual distinctions, it’s ridiculous—

DAVID:

But Nicky—there is a gay cancer. That’s what’s in the Times. Some obscure thing called, uh—

(Looks at the paper)

Karposi’s—no—Kaposi’s sarcoma. Forty men. Tony’s one of them.

NICK:

Jesus, they printed the names?

(Beat. DAVID looks at NICK, then rolls his eyes)

DAVID:

Of course they didn’t. I just thought he might be, so I called him. No one can talk about anything else. Look, read this when you’re human again. And call Tony.

NICK:

(Reading, as he will throughout the following)

Yeah. Okay.

DAVID:

Oh—I spoke to Sandy this morning. He did have a performance last night after all. He says he’ll call you when he gets back to New York.

NICK:

Um-hm.

DAVID:

And Nick—about Kelly? You weren’t the first. You surely won’t be the last. Don’t develop a complex. Come to my office at eight. I’ll let you know what I find out over dinner.

(Picks up the bottle)

And don’t kill any more brain cells. You clearly cannot afford the loss.

Copyright 1990, 2013 by Scott Ross

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A Liberal Education: Excerpt from Act One [Stonewall and Sympathy]

A Liberal Education

by Scott Ross

 

DESCRIPTION OF PLAY

A Liberal Education describes the downward spiral of a man in the throes of personal and sexual obsession during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is concerned with public and private duplicity—personal, ethical, sexual and political—and the ways in which ideals are either corrupted or destroyed by shadow politics. The play begins in 1981, with the first newspaper article concerning the deaths of a number of gay men from a mysterious cancer; the action carries through to 1986, when AIDS has become a full-blown pandemic.

The central character is Nick Halpern, a young gay writer. Nick’s attempts to investigate the life of a closeted homosexual man named Michael Kelly, a fund-raiser for right-wing Republican politicians, sets the play in motion. After unwittingly sleeping with Kelly (who uses an alias), Nick’s fury at being duped becomes an obsession. His determination to expose Kelly is fueled by his simultaneous personal revulsion and sexual desire.

Kelly is equally attracted to Nick, and far more amused than threatened by Nick’s threats of exposure. He senses that the two are more alike than Nick cares to admit, and is so insulated by his political connections that he can never lose—even in death. Kelly plays his cynicism against Nick’s naivete, engaging him in a series of philosophical debates as his attempt to “instruct” Nick in the ways of the political world.

When Nick’s curiously symbiotic relationship with Kelly becomes overtly sexual, the extended liaison leads to the loss of Nick’s partnership with the actor Sandy Peoples (who later dies from HIV/AIDS complications); the estrangement of his friendships with David Kearns (a Washington lobbyist for gay causes), Sheree (his book editor) and Sheree’s younger lover Jo; and finally, his own health as he succumbs to the HIV virus.

Nick’s relationship to Sandy is complicated by his desire to see his actor lover come out, and by Sandy’s fear of doing so. When he becomes ill, Nick is no longer around to care for him. Sheree champions a book of essays by Nick, but is later a target of Nick’s paranoia—which is turn is fueled by Nick’s increasing dependence on cocaine as his relationship to Kelly becomes darker and more perverse.

If the play has a fixed moral center, it is David. Somewhat effeminate and seemingly ineffectual, it is David who remains truest to his own ideals. Even when forced to turn his back on the heartbreak of lobbying indifferent politicians in the face of a pandemic, David’s essential decencies remain intact. Although the politically impregnable Kelly ultimately triumphs over Nick’s self-righteousness and naivete, even as his own health deteriorates, in the play’s coda the terminally ill Nick, vague of mind and uncharacteristically gentle, is “forgiven” by David.

The action of the play is continuous, and the events occur in New York City or Washington DC. A Liberal Education should be performed on a simple unit set with minimal props and furniture. The lighting should be designed to indicate change of time and, with the set, venue.

The following is an excerpt from the first act.

(Cross-fade to SHEREE and JO’s apartment. KELLY appears, to one side.)

KELLY:

New York City.  1982.

(He exits.  SHEREE, her partner JO, DAVID and NICK enter with three overstuffed pillows and a tea set. They place the pillows on the platform. NICK sits in a chair on the opposite side. SHEREE puts the tea set down on the small table at which SANDY was sitting. SHEREE serves tea.)

JO:

(To DAVID, finishing a previous conversation)

So, how was your flight?

DAVID:

Miserable.  I got jet-lag.

JO:

You don’t get jet-lag traveling in the same time-zone.

NICK:

You’ve been to D.C.—it’s another dimension. Did anyone hear “All Things Considered”? That asshole in the White House—

JO:

Surely you don’t mean our beloved President.

NICK:

Jesus. The sick joke of the century: “President Reagan.”

SHEREE:

Please.

(Offering tea)

Nick.

NICK:

Thank you.

JO:

Sheree made a vow to never speak those two words consecutively.

SHEREE:

It’s relatively easy, once you train yourself. The way a stutterer learns to avoid certain troublesome consonants.

JO:

If she doesn’t say it, she doesn’t have to believe it.

SHEREE:

(More tea)

David.

DAVID:

(A la Bette Davis)

Mm. It smells divine.

 

SHEREE:

It should.  It cost enough.

JO:

That’s only because you insist on being ripped off by emporiums.

SHEREE:

You’ll find the plural of emporium is emporia, dear. Not “emporiums.”

JO:

Isn’t that just an archaic variation?

SHEREE:

Depends on the usage.

NICK:

Anyway! The CDC wants a lousy five hundred thousand for AIDS education, and the Last Rider of the Fucking Plains vetoes the bill because it’s “too expensive.”

JO:

Are there enough votes in Congress for an override?

NICK:

Cokie Roberts says so. David?

DAVID:

Who I am to disagree with Cokie Roberts?

NICK:

Five hundred thousand! If he or Nancy came down with it, five hundred million wouldn’t be enough.

SHEREE:

If he or Nancy came down with it—

JO:

Someone would have a lot of explaining to do.

SHEREE:

Nick? Isn’t Sandy coming?

JO:

Yes. I miss being outnumbered by the masculine contingent.

(To DAVID)

You should pardon the expression.

DAVID:

Dyke.

JO:

Faggot.

SHEREE:

Oh, dear god.

DAVID:

She started it!

JO:

Who invited this—homosexual?

SHEREE:

I believe you did, dear.

DAVID:

Sorry. I just keep thinking I shouldn’t be here.

SHEREE:

Thank you.

DAVID:

Not “here” here. New York here. I ought to be back home canvassing to keep President Fuck-Face from getting his way. Again.

NICK:

David, tell them your theory.

JO:

Oh, goodie—theorizing.

DAVID:

Well, we were talking—on the way over—about the differences in gay behavior.

JO:

There are differences?

DAVID:

Not for nothing, sweetie, but some men are gay and some are—

(He stands and throws his arms up and out in a “v”)

gay!

JO:

Thanks for the clarification.

NICK:

I mean, you take me. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to swish—

DAVID:

He tried once. At a New Year’s Eve party? Pathetic.

JO:

(Singing)

I can’t camp—

(SHEREE joins in)

—don’t ask me.

DAVID:

Whereas I might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign. Anyway. I was thinking, about Stonewall. And as far as I can gather, that little shin-dig was thrown by a whole lotta pissed-off drag queens and effeminate Hispanic boys and oh-so-butch ladies—

NICK:

Drag queens and nellies and dykes—

JO:

Oh, my!

DAVID:

Exactly. Has anyone ever made the connection that, the week those girls said, “Get over it, Miss Cop,” Our Lady of the Rainbow had just doffed her ruby slippers for the last time?

NICK:

Isn’t it funny to think that Judy Garland just might be the unofficial mother of the whole modern gay rights movement?

SHEREE:

Hysterical. Does that make Liza Minnelli the step-mother?

JO:

Please.

NICK:

You have to admit, if you take anger, frustration and high temperatures and compound them with grief, you’ve got one very volatile combination.

DAVID:

So, the next time some slab of overfed gay beef gives me shit for camping, I’m just going to sing him a few bars of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”

JO:

David, you’re a credit to the species.

DAVID:

I hope so. I certainly can’t make it on mileage alone these days.

NICK:

Here we go.

DAVID:

Honestly, it’s been so long I’m beginning to wonder just who put the sex in homosexual, anyway. Is it true what they say? Does it all come back to you?

(Hepburn in “On Golden Pond”)

Like riding a bicycle?

JO:

Why is he looking at me?

DAVID:

Well, what’s the use being a social pariah if you’re not having any fun?

NICK:

When the time comes, you’ll remember.

SHEREE:

While we’re on the subject—and wouldn’t it be a great surprise to me if we ever got around to any other subject?—Nick, believe it or not, I have actually persuaded the firm, in the person of that August body, Clifton J. Edwards—

JO:

Than whom few bodies were ever more August.

SHEREE:

If you please. As I say, I’ve finally convinced the staid old firm to consider a line of—

(Sotto voce)

gay

(Normal tone)

—books.

DAVID:

And about time.

SHEREE:

To be edited and selected—

JO:

Or vice-versa.

SHEREE:

—by yours truly. Truly.

NICK:

That’s terrific, Sheree! Reprints?

SHEREE:

We’re looking at backlist titles and reprints, yes. But the greater number will be new commissions. Which is where you come in.

NICK:

But I don’t have anything new. And certainly nothing that could be remotely considered book-length.

SHEREE:

Which is where I come in. What I was thinking in your case is a book of essays. We bring together the best of your work—

DAVID:

Thereby resulting in a pamphlet.

SHEREE:

—along with something new. Well? Okay?

NICK:

Well, okay!

SHEREE:

Wonderful. Now. Here’s my thought. We reprint ten to fifteen pieces, then we wrap up with one major piece on the subject of your choice. Say ten thousand words.

(DAVID glances quickly at NICK)

I saw that.

DAVID:

Nicky—

NICK:

Well, there is a profile I’m—

DAVID:

Obsessed by.

NICK:

Interested in. Ever heard of a man named Michael Kelly?

SHEREE:

(Beat)

Forget it, Nick.

NICK:

Who told you about—?

(DAVID rises his hand and wiggles his fingers)

Oh. But Sheree, the man is helping to kill us! And he’s—

               SHEREE:                                                      NICK:

(Simultaneously)

          No.                                                                  —gay himself, goddamnit!

NICK:

Why?

SHEREE:

Because Clifton is not in the market for a libel suit, and neither am I.

NICK:

Libel! It’s the truth!

DAVID:

Prove it, then.

NICK:

Yeah, right: presumed hetero until proven queer. “Libel!”

SHEREE:

I have nothing against the truth. Just don’t include the “h” word in it—

NICK:

Come on, Sheree!

SHEREE:

—without the subject’s expressly stated approval. No.

JO:

She’s got a point.

NICK:

You’re going to take her side? That’s a picture: Ms. Radical Lesbian Feminist, head in the sand.

JO:

Hey—

SHEREE:

If the bastard keels over and dies before you go to press, we can talk about it. Otherwise, no.

DAVID:

I’m the last person to argue in favor of anyone staying in the closet. But you cannot play God with people’s privacy.

NICK:

This isn’t the average closet-case we’re discussing here. This man spends his days advocating genocide for faggots and his nights being fucked by them.

JO:

And those who do what you decide are good works? Do we make exceptions for them? Or should we should yank them out of their closets just because they also get “fucked by men”?

NICK:

David. You told me yourself that one of the nastiest homophobes in the Senate had a gay lover in college, and then let his supporters accuse his opponent of the same thing during his last re-election campaign. That’s not fit for exposure?

DAVID:

Doing so makes us no better than our enemies.

NICK:

It’s not the same issue.

JO:

It is!

SHEREE:

I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, because for all practical purposes the subject is closed. Closed, Nick. Like the door to Michael Kelly’s closet.

JO:

(Rising and putting on a cape)

I think dessert is called for.  David, will you walk with me down to the bakery?

DAVID:

Only if I can wear that cape on the way back.

JO:

When have I ever denied you anything?

(Kissing SHEREE)

Back in a few.

(The lights cross-fade from NICK and SHEREE to follow JO and DAVID as they cross downstage.)

Damn—what’s up with Nick?

DAVID:

(Shrugging and saying “I don’t know” with his mouth closed)

Mm-nn. 

JO:

You’re keeping something from me. I can always tell when you’re trying to be coy.

DAVID:

What do you mean?

JO:

You get that far-away look in your eyes.

DAVID:

 (With a far-away look in his eyes)

Oh, I do not!

JO:

Well, play innocent, then. But this Kelly business smells like a vendetta to me.

DAVID:

A vendetta? Our own shy and loveable Nick?

JO:

I don’t know. Something in his tone, that insistence. It just strikes me as—involved. Somehow.

DAVID:

I just wish he’d get half as inflamed about things that really matter. Or channel his energy more usefully. It pisses me off. Anyway, I tell no tales out of school.

JO:

Turn over a new leaf?

DAVID:

You impugn my integrity. Besides, I took a vow of silence.

JO:

So I should ask Nick myself is what you’re saying, in your own, inimitable fashion.

DAVID:

Correct.

JO:

I pass.

DAVID:

Anyway, I wouldn’t. Not just now.

JO:

Trouble in paradise?

(DAVID nods in affirmation. They exit and we cross-fade back to NICK and SHEREE.)

SHEREE:

You understand my position?

NICK:

Do you know what he said last week? Kelly? He said maybe quarantining was the answer. Of course, he couched it in the best terms. Public health emergency, the greater good, blah-blah-blah-blah. But it came out “concentration camps.”

SHEREE:

Where was this? It wasn’t in the New York papers.

NICK:

He didn’t come right out and actually say the Nazis had the right idea. Only that the personal identification system—the pink triangles—for perverts only, of course…

SHEREE:

I understand your anger. But it’s misplaced. Anyway—we can talk more about this later. And on company time. I’m exhausted.

(SHEREE settles back, pats a pillow.  NICK reclines below her.)

So, how are you? Sandy appears to be working steadily.

NICK:

Oh, yes. Sandy will never lack for work.

SHEREE:

You say that as though you resent it.

NICK:

He left me, Sheree.

SHEREE:

Oh, Nick.

NICK:

I drive him crazy. But it drives me crazy! When I read his bio in a Playbill and I’m not mentioned, or he skirts the issue in some newspaper interview, or goes to an awards banquet with some young woman, I feel denied. It eats at me, and then … then I make him miserable by bringing it up on the slightest pretext.

SHEREE:

Jo’s the one you should be telling this to. God knows we’ve had our own battles royal on the subject. I sympathize. I do. But it’s not so easy for some of us. In my fantasies, I see myself as the great Lesbian editorial goddess, spear-heading an independent movement of artists and writers, drawing them to my bosom and shielding them from the world’s hatred with the cloak of my divinity. Then I come to and remember where I am. And where I’d be if I ever opened my mouth as I want to. Clifton doesn’t get involved in his employees’ private lives. He doesn’t have to know.  He doesn’t want to know. So, he never asks. No pressure, you see.

NICK:

(Musing aloud, softly)

…pressure…

SHEREE:

(After a beat)

If you’re thinking of tangling with Kelly, Nick: don’t. You can’t touch him. You’ll only take the fall trying. And if you fall, you do it alone. I won’t back you. I love you, hon. But not that much.

Copyright 1990, 2013 by Scott Ross

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A Liberal Education: Excerpt from Act Two [Flights of angels]

A Liberal Education

by Scott Ross

 

DESCRIPTION OF PLAY

A Liberal Education describes the downward spiral of a man in the throes of personal and sexual obsession during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is concerned with public and private duplicity—personal, ethical, sexual and political—and the ways in which ideals are either corrupted or destroyed by shadow politics. The play begins in 1981, with the first newspaper article concerning the deaths of a number of gay men from a mysterious cancer; the action carries through to 1986, when AIDS has become a full-blown pandemic.

The central character is Nick Halpern, a young gay writer. Nick’s attempts to investigate the life of a closeted homosexual man named Michael Kelly, a fund-raiser for right-wing Republican politicians, sets the play in motion. After unwittingly sleeping with Kelly (who uses an alias), Nick’s fury at being duped becomes an obsession. His determination to expose Kelly is fueled by his simultaneous personal revulsion and sexual desire.

Kelly is equally attracted to Nick, and far more amused than threatened by Nick’s threats of exposure. He senses that the two are more alike than Nick cares to admit, and is so insulated by his political connections that he can never lose—even in death. Kelly plays his cynicism against Nick’s naivete, engaging him in a series of philosophical debates as his attempt to “instruct” Nick in the ways of the political world.

When Nick’s curiously symbiotic relationship with Kelly becomes overtly sexual, the extended liaison leads to the loss of Nick’s partnership with the actor Sandy Peoples (who later dies from HIV/AIDS complications); the estrangement of his friendships with David Kearns (a Washington lobbyist for gay causes), Sheree (his book editor) and Sheree’s younger lover Jo; and finally, his own health as he succumbs to the HIV virus.

Nick’s relationship to Sandy is complicated by his desire to see his actor lover come out, and by Sandy’s fear of doing so. When he becomes ill, Nick is no longer around to care for him. Sheree champions a book of essays by Nick, but is later a target of Nick’s paranoia—which is turn is fueled by Nick’s increasing dependence on cocaine as his relationship to Kelly becomes darker and more perverse.

If the play has a fixed moral center, it is David. Somewhat effeminate and seemingly ineffectual, it is David who remains truest to his own ideals. Even when forced to turn his back on the heartbreak of lobbying indifferent politicians in the face of a pandemic, David’s essential decencies remain intact. Although the politically impregnable Kelly ultimately triumphs over Nick’s self-righteousness and naivete, even as his own health deteriorates, in the play’s coda the terminally ill Nick, vague of mind and uncharacteristically gentle, is “forgiven” by David.

The action of the play is continuous, and the events occur in New York City or Washington DC. A Liberal Education should be performed on a simple unit set with minimal props and furniture. The lighting should be designed to indicate change of time and, with the set, venue.

The following is an excerpt from the first act.

KELLY:

1985.

(A hospital waiting room. SHEREE and JO sit. They look exhausted, on edge. JO lights a cigarette.)

SHEREE:

Jo, please don’t smoke now!

(JO stares at her a beat, then puts the cigarette back into the pack.)

I’m sorry.

JO:

It’s okay.

(Beat. JO laughs suddenly and sharply)

SHEREE:

What?

JO:

(Fighting to stay light, and losing)

I was just thinking of a summer stock production I saw Sandy in once. The Ritz. In Provincetown, no less. Sandy was playing the detective with the falsetto voice. You know how they’re all wearing those towels? He had to make a running entrance and when he came on, the towel came off. Fwoop! But somehow he’d kicked it and it went under a bed.  So, there he was, standing in his jockstrap, trying desperately to fish this towel out from under the bed with his foot. Finally, he gave up. He shrugged a bit … got on his knees by the bed, turned his back … and bent way over. Got a standing ovation.

(She turns to SHEREE, her lower lip trembling. SHEREE embraces her. NICK enters.  He is distraught. He sees the women and looks as though he’d like to join them, but holds back, waiting. SHEREE looks up and sees him.) 

SHEREE:

Nick.

(JO starts at the name, breaking the embrace.)

NICK:

I just heard, I—how bad is it, Sher[ee]—?

JO:

He’s dying, you asshole, that’s how bad.

SHEREE:

Jo—

JO:

No! To hell with your politesse! “I just heard, I didn’t know.” You knew. You had to know. How can you even show your fucking face here? Poor, martyred Nick.

NICK:

You have to believe me. I did just find out. I haven’t—I didn’t —

JO:

Bullshit you didn’t. Lingering colds, swollen glands, a fever that wouldn’t go away—oh, maybe you didn’t hear the actual diagnosis, but one way or another, Nick, you did know. So what he wasn’t your lover anymore? He was still Sandy. And he was still in love with you. Why, I can’t imagine, but that was his problem.

(Correcting herself as if to ward off the inevitable)

Is. Is his problem. And you couldn’t even look in on him? There’s every chance he got this from you. God knows who you were fucking, but he was faithful to you, you bastard.

(Gathers up her coat and starts out, turning to SHEREE)

I’m going out. I’m sorry, but if I stay in the same room with him much longer, I may puke all over these nice, clean floors.

(She starts to exit)

NICK:

Jo—

JO:

(Whirling on him)

What was it, Nick? He remind you of your future?

(She storms out. A lengthy silence. SHEREE sits.)

SHEREE:

I’d apologize for her, but I happen to agree with most of it.

NICK:

I’m not seeking absolution.

SHEREE:

Good. Who told you?

NICK:

One of his actor friends.

SHEREE:

You hear so many stories about actors’ shittiness to each other. Not with Sandy. They’ve treated him like … a princeling. There are several in there with him right now, holding vigil. We’d like to be with him every minute, but we owe his friends some privacy.

(Uneasy silence)

NICK:

Is—uh, is David—?

SHEREE:

He’s gone out. I should warn you, he’s liable to be back any time.

NICK:

Is Sandy in much pain?

SHEREE:

(Trying to reign in her grief)

No. I doubt he’d be aware of it if he were. But he’s barely alive. They don’t expect he’ll last the night.

NICK:

I don’t suppose they’d let me see him?

SHEREE:

(A bitter laugh)

Nick. He wouldn’t even know you were there.

NICK:

Who’s been—who took care of him?

SHEREE:

When it was obvious he was unable to work any longer, David came up from Washington. He pretty much handled everything these past few months. No one would bond Sandy for film work, and even the most well-intentioned stage directors aren’t too keen on hiring someone who might not make it to opening night. He wasn’t very solvent at the end.  So David assumed financial responsibility.  Although I really don’t think he could afford to. With the drugs, the hospital stays—I don’t mean to canonize David; he merely did what you didn’t.

(An awkward pause. NICK changes the subject)

NICK:

I never thanked you for getting me out of my contract with Clifton.

SHEREE:

No, you never did. And that’s something else you should have done. You can thank Jo, actually. She’s on good terms with one of our lawyers. He finessed it. Only, I should add, to save my hide. I’m lucky Clifton’s had an exceptionally good year, so there was minimal hair-pulling and breast-beating. His forgetting? That’s another matter. He’s never liked the imprint to begin with, and your behavior has not helped. My time with the firm is probably contingent on end-of-the-year figures. Buy a lot of our books for Christmas presents. Maybe you can work it off that way.

(She stands, furious, and starts to exit. She stops, turns and speaks, but not really to NICK)

Funny. I’ve never known such calm as I do when I’m in that room. How can you be sitting next to someone who’s letting go of life and know nothing but serenity? I’ve heard of people becoming like light at the end, but I never thought I’d see it for myself. Sandy’d be so pleased if he knew how—easy—he was making it for the rest of us.

(She starts to say something more but is overcome. She exits. NICK leans forward in his seat, face in hands. Silence. DAVID enters carrying a brown paper bag and lacking any trace of his usual exuberance. He sees NICK, stops, then moves to the seat.) 

DAVID:

Hello, Nicky.

(NICK looks up)

NICK:

David, I’m so sorry. What I said, I—

DAVID:

(Exploding, finally)

I don’t want to hear it! Do you understand? Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it!

(His face goes slack again and his body sags.)

I don’t have any more patience, Nicky. No more patience, no more energy, no more … I’m tired. Mary and Joseph, I’m so tired. I have spent the last five years of my life being fucked by murderers, and I just don’t want to know.

NICK:

(Pause)

Davy, I don’t want him to die.

DAVID:

(After a beat, evenly)

Well, you’d better get used to the idea.

NICK:

I know I’m a bastard—

DAVID:

I had to stop grieving for him a long, long time ago, or I’d have been no good to him at all.

(During this speech, he sinks to his knees)

You think you’re hurting, baby? You think Nick Halpern is the only man in this city carrying around a kit-bag of loss? Come to my office sometime, Nicky darling, if you really want a liberal education. Listen to a few of the messages on my answering machine if you need any proof that the world just wants to break your heart. I’m sorry,

but I just don’t have any tears left for you. You’re only losing a lover. An ex-lover, to be precise. I’ve lost half a world. And I’m one of the luckier ones. And my waking and sleeping nightmare is that one day there’ll be one last voice on the machine: mine. And then no more voices at all.

(Rising again)

So I beg and plead and play by their rules and observe their protocol and I’m so ashamed of making nice with killers all day I want to take up a baseball bat and start bashing in heads! My poisons know no antidote—and you sit there expecting me to care about your problems when all you’ve done for three years is sleep with the enemy? You better face it, Nicky doll: no one believes you’re doing research any more. I’m not sure what amazes me more—what you’ve done, or the fact that I’m even telling you this. Because you really could not care less, could you? Once your consciousness is raised, Nicky, it’s supposed to stay raised. Not dip whenever it’s convenient.

(NICK says nothing. A pause. JO returns. She sees DAVID and goes to him. They embrace. SHEREE comes in and stands. They look at her. She shakes her head and her face falls apart. She rushes to JO and DAVID with her arms outstretched. They stand holding onto one another. NICK rises, looking as though he’d like to join their circle of grief and knowing he’s not entitled to share in i.  Then he tears away, exiting. JO, DAVID and SHEREE finally break their emrace and SHEREE takes JO’s hand, moving upstage. JO takes DAVID’s hand and DAVID picks up the paper bag and follows her. As they move upstage holding hands they look like children, lost in the woods.)

Copyright 1990, 2013 by Scott Ross

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The Dogs of Foo: Excerpt from Act Two

The Dogs of Foo—Description

The Dogs of Foo refracts Hollywood of the 1940s through the prism of memory, and memory through the stylistic vernacular of the movies.

The frame is a series of dialogues, circa 1972, between Paul Lehrman, a long-retired film director who has just completed his memoirs, and Keith, a young, gay cineaste contracted by Lehrman’s publisher to ghost the book. The discussions—Keith’s attempts to fill in the gaps produced by Lehrman’s memory—center around Lehrman’s past as a respected writer-director of movie adaptations and the new project on which he hopes to embark: a film adaptation of John Okada’s post-war novel of Japanese-Americans, No-No Boy.

Among the personalities whose relationship to the younger Paul Lehrman figure prominently in memory are: Sid Geldman, the savvy Russian-Jewish immigrant head of the studio whose shrewdness and love of talent are overshadowed by his flamboyantly uneducated mangling of the language; Leo Jaffe, the oily studio Production Manager; Lita Gravesend, a popular musical personality trying to attain dramatic credentials; Millie Haver, Lehrman’s cinematic muse; Polly Harper, the fanatical radio gossip; Rod Mitchell, the egocentric but sexually anxious matinee idol; the ambitious starlet Madeline Overstreet; and Sammy Detweiller, Lehrman’s contemporary, a Viennese-born writer/director, raconteur and acid-tongued wit.

Lehrman, whose homosexuality is something of an open secret, relives his 30-year-old memories even as he filters out of them those elements about which he prefers Keith remain ignorant; only the audience is privy to Lehrman’s selective memories.  This is especially true of those involving Lehrman’s sexuality:

*His love affair with the young Japanese-American actor Johnny Tamaribuchi, whose ambitions Lehrman discourages to protect him from the realities of Hollywood’s prejudice (which leads to a split between them as Johnny endures a futile pursuit of his craft at a rival studio); Johnny’s relationship with Paul—which will leave the director virtually incapable of ever again expressing love—is on an inexorable collision course with history, exacerbated by Paul’s intransigence in not trying harder to further Johnny’s career;

*His physical attraction to a rising new contract player, Tyler Davidson (doubled by the actor portraying Keith) who is willing to sacrifice Lehrman—indeed any personal happiness—to satisfy his ambitions of movie stardom;

*His climactic brush with the racist tensions (and sexual terrors) of Rod Mitchell and with Lita’s secret rage, which result in Lerhman’s removal from the helm of his massive film version of War and Peace and precipitate his withdrawal from the movie colony. In this sequence, Lehrman himself “plays” Mitchell, in effect becoming his own persecutor.

As the play progresses, Lehrman descends deeper into the realm of memory. At moments of special pain or stress he breaks through the past itself, venting his emotions at his younger alter ego as the line between past and present vanishes and he watches his own history repeat itself, helpless to alter it. Finally, Lehrman lowers his resistance to Keith, intellectually and physically, only to pull back as three decades of torch carrying—coupled with his belief that No-No Boy will never be made–conquer his momentary courage. Keith is compelled to leave the older man alone with his memories, voluntarily surrounded by the ghosts of his largely unresolved past.

The Dogs of Foo has a cast of  11 (7m, 4f  with 1 male and 1 female each doubling 2 speaking roles) and requires fluid staging and imaginatively-designed lighting to convey its cinematic presentation, particularly that involving the collision of past and present.

The following consists of excerpts from the second act.

The Dogs of Foo

by Scott Ross

ACT TWO

(In the garden, 1972. KEITH and LEHRMAN. Morning. LEHRMAN is clipping with the shears.)

KEITH:

[…] How do you feel about the two Granville-Barker adaptations you did in the late ‘30s?  The Madras House and The Voysey Inheritance? You discuss them in great detail, but you don’t give your opinion.

LEHRMAN:

Well, I haven’t seen them in over thirty years.

KEITH:

I have a feeling they’ll come into their own in time.

LEHRMAN:

They were done as well as they could have been. By me, in any event. And very definitely and distinctly male, those plays. Which no one ever remembers. In connection with me, they only think of Millie Haver. The Bostonians. Paul Lehrman—oh, yes, the woman’s director.

KEITH:

Doesn’t reputation have more to do with whether one was a club member than anything else?

LEHRMAN:

Of course. The Fraternal Order of the Hairy Chest.

KEITH:

Meaning if one didn’t go in for whoring and drinking—

LEHRMAN:

And boasting much too much about both.

KEITH:

The John Fords.

LEHRMAN:

Oh, Ford was a phony. He had to behave that way so no one would suspect how sensitive he really was. How else do you explain his pictures? That visual poetry? You know, I’ve always thought it most interesting that the very pinnacle of achievement, as it’s seen here, is represented by the statue of a naked man with a sword but no genitals.

KEITH:

Getting back to you—

LEHRMAN:

By all means!

KEITH:

You were making enormous strides throughout the mid to late thirties, and even though you seem to have been in great command of your craft, seem to have been moving toward doing something really astonishing, your output during the early ‘40s in fact slowed to practically nil.

LEHRMAN:

Well, there are a number of good reasons for that. It took over a year to create a script for War and Peace that would satisfy me. And another year of revision to satisfy Sid. At least I thought I’d satisfied Sid. And of course, the casting was a nightmare—that’s another book in itself. And in the meanwhile, I had an idea for a smaller picture I wanted to do after the Tolstoy was finished. So, I was working on those two projects, one contingent upon the completion of the other. And, of course, with War and Peace …  Well.

KEITH:

Was the other picture The Shining Prince?

(LEHRMAN is startled)

The Geldman archives are very complete.

(Beat)

I suppose the war put an end to that.

LEHRMAN:

The war changed everything.

KEITH:

You don’t mention The Shining Prince in the manuscript at all. What was your idea with the project? It’s The Tale of Genji, isn’t it?

LEHRMAN:

Yes.

KEITH:

Massive book.

LEHRMAN:

Enormous. Fifty-four chapters, as I recall. Very episodic. I knew no one would be able to come to terms with the movie under the original title. Since we were already trying to create a work set in a culture alien to our audience, I thought it best to anglicize as much as possible. And Genji is called Shining Prince in the story, so that seemed easier on the American tongue. I thought a few of the episodes could be condensed into a reasonably small picture. I still think so. My—assistant—was a young Nisei.

KEITH:

Second generation.

LEHRMAN:

Yes. Johnny was—had been a stage actor. I’d seen him, in fact, in a stage version of Genji in Los Angeles. He was going to help me with the adaptation.

KEITH:

All of the Asian actors in those days were bit players.

LEHRMAN:

As opposed to now?

KEITH:

Well … Who were you planning to cast?

LEHRMAN:

Well, they’d done a couple of Pearl Bucks earlier, and I must tell you: truth flies out the window when Kate Hepburn traipses in wearing Light Egyptian.

(PAUL’s garden, 1941. PAUL is typing)

JOHNNY:

Paulie, have you spoken to Sid about my screen test yet?

PAUL:

Oh, Christ. I’m sorry. Look, these pages have to be ready to go to the studio by tomorrow morning.  I’ll ask him then. Okay?

JOHNNY:

Yeah.

LEHRMAN:

I wanted to avoid having to cast Tyrone Power or someone like that as Genji, but I knew there’d be a fight about it. I thought that if most of the roles went to the usual suspects, maybe we could get away with it.

JOHNNY:

Paulie—?

PAUL:

(Annoyed)

If he’s in a good enough mood, I’ll mention it.

LEHRMAN:

Because Johnny, aside from being a superb actor, was extraordinarily attractive.

JOHNNY:

Paulie, you won’t—

PAUL:

Not now, Johnny—please!

(Beat)

I’m sorry.

JOHNNY:

(Beat)

When?

PAUL:

Soon.  I promise.

KEITH:

I assume The Shining Prince was a casualty of the War?

LEHRMAN:

You always think, there’s time. But the world can alter overnight. Believe that.

KEITH:

This is an awful cliché of a question to ask, but—the question for my generation is always, “What were you doing when you heard that JFK had been shot?” For yours, I gather it’s “Where were you on December 7th?”

 (Long pause)

LEHRMAN:

I was having a late breakfast. Johnny, who was my—assistant, I told you, didn’t I? Of course. He’d just passed me the maple syrup. He made a wonderful French toast, and I was greedy for it, so we’d have it every other Sunday. We were listening to Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman on CBS radio, and when the announcement was made in the middle of the broadcast, as I was taking the syrup from Johnny’s hand, well—all I could think was, “Oh, god, Orson! This time they’ll throw you in jail and lose the key!”

(We are simultaneously in 1972 and 1941.)

 RADIO ANNOUNCER’S VOICE:

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special bulletin. This morning at 7:38 AM, Japanese airplanes attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Hawaii. The President has called an emergency joint session of the Senate and the House…

(PAUL comes behind JOHNNY, puts his arms around his waist and they stand there silently. They disappear.)

KEITH:

Was he—put in a camp?

LEHRMAN:

Of course! He was—“undesirable.” Oh, yes. Johnny’s family was sent to Manzanar. I tried, oh god. Tried to get him some kind of dispensation—anything. All Japanese were suspect. You can’t … imagine—what it was like. The ugliness, the hysteria. The way the war gave everyone in this country an excuse to use the word “Jap.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt! In the end, the only thing I could do for him at all was to buy his family’s business before it could be seized, along with some land in the Valley and hold it for them—the business, the land, the money, in my own name—until the war ended. Oh, it was an—evil business. Evil.

KEITH:

Jesus.

LEHRMAN:

One day we were—working together, and the next—I never—saw him again. And I don’t wish to talk about it anymore.

(JOHNNY appears, in service uniform. PAUL appears from the opposite side.)

JOHNNY:

Dear Paulie—

(LEHRMAN watches PAUL reading the letter.)

I’ve enlisted. I’m being shipped overseas. I thought I should tell you myself. I’d have sent a photo, but I think I know how you’d feel about seeing me in uniform.

(Beat)

Paulie, I’m married.

(PAUL puts down the letter.  When he picks it up again, JOHNNY speaks)

It was arranged, Paulie. Her parents, mine. I had no choice. They had the ceremony the day before we were sent to Manzanar. See, her family was being sent to Hart Mountain, so it had to be done quickly. I’ve only ever been with her once.

PAUL:

At the station—you were married when we said goodbye?

JOHNNY:

I couldn’t have told you at the train. Your heart was breaking as it was.

PAUL:

And yours?

(He crumples the letter, hurls it away, and exits. LEHRMAN retrieves the letter, smoothing it out again as JOHNNY speaks to him.)

JOHNNY:

I swear to you, Paulie, I didn’t have any say in it. Ma—she suspects. Her best friend had this young, unmarried niece—she barely speaks English. The two old ladies figure they can kill two birds between them. No old maid niece and no queer son. And if they’re lucky, after the wedding night everybody gets to be a grandparent. God—the wedding night. I was so afraid of her—I thought of her lips as your lips, and I made love to you, Paulie. I—I haven’t seen her since. Ma says her friend wrote to her that my wife is very much not pregnant, and the way she looks at me when she says it, I know she thinks I couldn’t do my duty as a husband. And I don’t even bother to contradict her. She says, go on, then—go to your American army and learn to be a man if you can’t learn any other way. So my Ma hates me for not giving her grandchildren, and my wife probably hates me for not wanting her, and some of my friends hate me for going into the service. And if you hate me for any of this, Paulie, I don’t know what I’ll do.

LEHRMAN:

Hate you? Oh, you—idiot! How can you know so little about me? Don’t you realize, even now, that I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you?

JOHNNY:

Don’t love me, Paulie. It’d be so much easier if you didn’t.

LEHRMAN:

Easier! When I think of you in that—that—fucking prison camp, I almost wish I’d never seen you on that stage in Little Tokyo. If I’d had the strength to keep from going backstage. If I’d had the spine to not want that first night to go on for the rest of my life. If I hadn’t fallen and fallen hard. But I did. And we can’t change that. Not that I’d part with a single memory. And when you come back—

JOHNNY:

When I come back, I come back to a wife. And everything that in my parents’ culture goes with it. Unless one of us has the good sense to die first. I hope for everyone’s sake it’s me.

LEHRMAN:

Johnny—

JOHNNY:

I hated you, Paulie, that day in the station. For being free. For being white. Maybe for not being a girl I’d be allowed to kiss goodbye. But I love you, Paulie. In spite of everything, I do love you. If things were different, if—Forget me, Paulie. Try. Find someone who can be what I can’t, and make a life for yourself. That’s all, I think—except—your touch sustains me, my love. No matter what I say. I do get through hell on the memory of it.

LEHRMAN:

Dearest friend. So do I.

JOHNNY:

I wish I had the courage to tell you all of this in person. I can face the trenches, Paulie, but not you. I’m sorry for this letter. I’m sorry for a lot of things. But I’m not sorry we met. Sayonara, koibito.

(He disappears.)

LEHRMAN:

Shining Prince.

KEITH:

Look, if this isn’t a good time—I mean, if you’d rather I come back later, I—

(LEHRMAN indicates he should continue)

About War and Peace.

(Beat)

Um—I’ve had to slog my way through a muddy field of conflicting testimony on this one, and I’m having a great deal of difficulty getting to the truth of the matter.

LEHRMAN:

(Beat)

The truth is in my book.

KEITH:

Is it?

(Beat)

I mean, that’s your truth. Millicent Haver has her truth. And if Sid Geldman had left a memoir, it would probably contain his truth. But somewhere in that jumble of recollections is the true truth.

LEHRMAN:

Perhaps you’ll tell me what the truth of it is.

(We’re in SID’s office, 1942. SID and PAUL.)

SID:

Paulie, you got trouble. You got trouble because I got trouble.

PAUL:

What trouble, Sid?

SID:

This damn script is no damn good.

PAUL:

Now, just a moment, Sid. That is the same script that yesterday you said was the most brilliant adaptation you’d ever read. I’m quoting.

SID:

Yesterday Ben Hecht had not read this brilliant script. Today, it’s no damn good.

PAUL:

You’ve brought in Hecht? On my project? Since when have any of my films required a re-write?

SID:

Since now, goddamnit! Since three million dollars of Sid Geldman’s money has gone into the preparation of this no good, it stinks already adaptation script. Narration—feh! Voices, voices, and no story! I answer to you now? Your name is Sid Geldman? You paid for sets and costumes and blood money to Jack and Harry Warner for the services of Mr. Rod Mitchell, they should only plotz from what they’re charging me? And your Millie Haver, who must play Natasha, her price isn’t what it used to be, either. Paulie.  I respect you. Have I ever said no to you? Even when you wasted my money on that first English stiff with that meshugge name I can’t pronounce? No. I gave you more money to waste on a second English stiff with a name I can’t pronounce even worse. But, Paulie—little Napoleon himself with his hand inside his vest didn’t spend so much on his entire campaign as I have spent on this War and Peace that’s breaking my back and giving me no sleep so soon I should be popping Listerine pills like that schmuck David Selznick if I don’t see a script I can use.

PAUL:

Benzedrine.

SID:

What, Benzedrine?

PAUL:

It’s Benzedrine, not Listerine.

SID:

So maybe David should stop with the Benzedrine and start already with the Listerine. That’s his problem. But War and Peace, Paulie, that’s my problem. This script, it needs more romance. More kissing the lips, less flapping the gums. How many times I must tell you, Paulie? We’re like any other business. Like Ford and Kellogg and Chevrolet. We sell a product. Drama—that’s our commodity. It must have the most scrumptious packaging, that’s what makes the people buy. Get them to buy the package, they’ll eat what’s inside. Mr. Hunt, what makes him sell so many grosses tomatoes? Big, juicy, red on the package he must have to sell canned tomatoes. Well! Don’t movies come in canisters? What’s the difference? We sell dreams in a can.

(We’re back in 1972. LEHRMAN and KEITH.)

KEITH:

That’s an interesting statement.

LEHRMAN:

A businessman’s rationalization. What comes in cans? Canned goods. By the way, Chris Isherwood passed on a couple of your articles from that magazine, the homosexual one—what is it called? Oh, yes: The Advocate. He admires your writing style. Not that I mind your being—I believe the term you prefer is “gay” —although you might have told me yourself. You see, I’ve also been doing a little research. Or did you think I would agree to these sessions without knowing a little about the man I’m revealing myself to?

KEITH:

Let’s see how much revealing you’re up to. I want to talk a little more about War and Peace. There have been a half-dozen different explanations for why you were taken off the picture. The least plausible of which—the costume controversy—

(Tapping the manuscript)

—you repeat here.

LEHRMAN:

Not so implausible. Not with Rod Mitchell. Your judgment stems from irrefutable logic. But it’s  not Hollywood logic. You must abandon any normal methodology when dealing with the movies. And most especially when dealing with movie stars. Now. War and Peace was, obviously, a period story, a costume epic. And Rod Mitchell hated costumes. A compromise to his virility—as though he was being asked to wear lace around his cock. That masculine identity was so terribly precious to him.

KEITH:

And precarious to maintain?

LEHRMAN:

I won’t comment on that.

KEITH:

I only meant that, so often the men who fear the most for their masculine image are the ones with the most reason to fear.

LEHRMAN:

I can’t confirm or deny that.

KEITH:

Well, what will you confirm, or deny?

LEHRMAN:

Rod Mitchell didn’t like to feel threatened by anything, even a costume. I wanted the clothing, Sid wanted Mitchell. So Mitchell persuaded Sid to have me taken off the picture.

KEITH:

Your own picture.

LEHRMAN:

Of course. Personalities are always more important than picture-makers. To a studio, I mean. Who knows from directors, for god’s sake, except for critics. Oh, and cineastes. You don’t fire Mitchell when you can fire Lehrman.

KEITH:

Well, I’m not convinced. But let me ask you something else. You worked very diligently to have Millicent Haver cast as Natasha. You shot the first week with her. Then, inexplicably, once you’re off the picture, Haver is out and Gravesend—whose last two movies were terrific fiascoes—Gravesend is in.

LEHRMAN:

You no doubt have your pick of theories to choose from there as well. Maybe Sid Geldman had the hots for her and wanted her near him. Or, she was shacked up with Rod Mitchell and Sid had to take her to keep his star happily satiated. Perhaps some genius in the art department thought she looked more Russian. I wasn’t in the room when the decisions were made. Who knows the truth of it? They fired me anyway, so what in hell can it possibly matter?

(We’re in SID’s office, 1942. LEHRMAN observes the following: SID, JAFFE, LITA, MADELINE in period costume.)

 JAFFE:

I think you ought to hear this, Sid.

(To MADELINE)

Go ahead, kid.

MITCHELL:

Tell him what the Jap kid said, honey. Like you told it to me.

MADELINE:

Please, Mr. Mitchell. I don’t want to make trouble for Mr. Lehrman.

LITA:

But you do want to make a name for yourself. Don’t you? And you’ll do it any way you can. Change your name, knife your director. It’s all the same. You’re no better than anyone else in this room. If you were, you’d have kept your trap shut.

MADELINE:

Mr. Geldman, do I have to do this? I only mentioned it to Mr. Mitchell because—well, because I thought it was funny.

LITA:

You didn’t think it was so funny at the time.

MADELINE:

But I was so green then!

LITA:

And now you’ve developed a sense of humor. And ethics to go with it. Convenient. Watch and learn, honey. This is a lot less humiliating than the casting couch. And in its own, sweet way, a lot more fun for everyone.

SID:

Miss Aubersohn—

LITA:

Overstreet—you picked it out yourself.  Remember?

SID:

My dear. If you have anything at all to tell Sid Geldman that affects maybe one of Sid Geldman’s pictures—well … I leave it to you.

LITA:

Let the fact that it could also affect your future remain incidental.

(Pause)

MADELINE:

Well, it was at one of Mr. Lehrman’s parties. I met you there, Mr. Geldman. Do you remember? Anyway, I was talking to that boy, the Japanese—Mr. Lehrman’s assistant.

MITCHELL:

Assistant!

MADELINE:

Only I didn’t know that, you see, and—

LITA:

Of course, she’s modestly leaving out the fact that she was practically salivating on his lapels.

MADELINE:

(Beat)

I said, “And what do you do?” And he said—

LITA:

Go on. Go on!

MADELINE:

—he said—‘I fuck Mr. Lehrman.’”

MITCHELL:

You hear that? Not even trying to hide it! Right out, like it was nothing! They’re probably both in Hirohito’s pocket.

JAFFE:

Security risk.

MITCHELL:

Our own little Tokyo Rose. And this is the kind of “artiste” you think you can foist on a Rod Mitchell picture?

SID:

I gave you the keys to my studio? You’re paying out of your own pocket the four million dollars this farblondget picture is costing me? Your name now is suddenly Geldman? I run this studio! I! Me! Not you.

MADELINE:

I hope everyone is very happy now.

LITA:

You’ve made us all delirious. […]

SID:

What do you want from me? Paulie Lehrman is already the best director I’ve got. Okay, so some of the rushes have been a little slow. You want I should fire him from this project? And replace him with who? Sammy Detweiller, maybe?

MITCHELL:

That’s your headache. I don’t care who you get, but I want that Jap-kissing faggot off this picture! Now!

(Everyone but SID and JAFFE disappear. PAUL appears.)

PAUL:

What?!?

SID:

Paulie, you want I should repeat it?

JAFFE:

I’ll tell him. I’ll be delighted to tell him.

PAUL:

Shut up, you.

JAFFE:

I don’t believe you’re in any position to give me orders, Leerman.

SID:

Mr. Jaffe. Paulie, don’t ask me to repeat this, huh? To say it once already makes me ill.

PAUL:

But not ill enough to tell Rod Mitchell to go to hell.

SID:

Paulie, you’re tired. From the rushes, the dailies, anyone can see it. You don’t have that old Paulie Lehrman energy. So, you’re tired. So maybe even you no longer care about Natasha and Pierre and little Napoleon. So, nu?—who could blame you? But if you feel tired, I should suffer? This picture is shortening my life. I have to replace you. I’m sorry, Paulie, but—what can I do?

PAUL:

So that’s it, then? I’m no longer on? Well, that brings about a perfect sense of closure, doesn’t it? First you take my words away, now you take my picture. Since it no longer matters, let me give Mr. Jaffe one more item to add to his files. Rod Mitchell, like so many young punks, came to this town on a rail. Broke. And proceeded to make his entree into the circles of the Hollywood elite by allowing—

SID:

By letting the faygelehs suck on his tinkle for money. And maybe he sometimes put in his mouth their tinkles. You think I don’t know everything that goes on in this town? I helped build this town! And now I need you to tell me about Mr. Suck-My-Rod-for-a-Shekel-Mitchell? You think I know fuck-nothing! Well, let me tell you, I know fuck-all!

(He storms out)

JAFFE:

He knew all about you and your little “assistants.” He just looks the other way when it suits him. Like everyone else. Until it becomes a liability. Go home, Mr. Lehrman. Your services are no longer required. I’ve prepared the standard statement for Polly Harper. “Artistic differences” has the proper ambiguity, don’t you think?

PAUL:

Tell me, Mr. Jaffe: I may be the one employee of this studio who hasn’t insulted you. Sammy Detweiller shows open contempt for you. That you tolerate. What have I ever done to you to make you despise me so?

JAFFE:

Detweiller I hate. But his movies make money, so I swallow it, that’s all. I have to. You just make me sick. And since your pictures are stiffs, I don’t have to swallow it. But, hey—it ain’t personal. I just don’t like fags. […]

 (The 1972 garden again.)

LEHRMAN:

The subject of War and Peace is one I’ve avoided for a long time. I hadn’t realized I was still so touchy about it. You see, I’d simply lost interest in making pictures after we had to abandon The Shining Prince. The house was paid for. I had no debts. I’d a more-than-adequate savings account. I wrote a few magazine pieces during the war, just to keep the juices flowing. Started a novel, lost interest. But I had my Master’s Degree in Literature. And with the GI Bill of Rights and the sudden explosion in college admissions, academic employment was not terribly difficult to obtain. I wasn’t sorry to leave the studios. I’d done good work, but the tide was turning. Television was on the horizon, and as the years went by, I knew I’d have been hard-pressed to compete in the arena of glorious Technicolor, breath-taking CinemaScope—

KEITH:

And Stereophonic Sound!

LEHRMAN:

And anyway, at least I was spared the blacklist years. Oh, and peddling lies for the boys from Washington.

KEITH:

Propaganda, you mean. Weren’t there loyalty oaths on campus as well?

LEHRMAN:

Yes. Somehow, I just never got around to signing mine. Whenever the subject came up, I’d take another sabbatical.

KEITH:

Do you think the internment of the Japanese was part of a racist agenda?

(Pause)

 LEHRMAN:

Nothing can convince me that it wasn’t. And of course, the way Japanese-American boys, if they were of draft-age, were given exactly two options to escape those wretched camps. The first was: prove you’re a good, loyal American. Kill your little slant-eyed brothers. The second: refuse to serve and go to jail.

KEITH:

Be a no-no boy.

LEHRMAN:

Exactly. You’ve read the book. Well, just apply that Hobson’s Choice to something like a blacklist: what does it take to make anyone spill his guts?

KEITH:

That’s an argument for openness.

LEHRMAN:

What do you mean?

KEITH:

What isn’t hidden can’t be exposed. The worst they can do is kill you.

LEHRMAN:

I must say that’s a compelling point to favor your argument! Look, all the intellectual preparation in the world can’t help you when the adrenaline is pumping and you have only precious seconds to decide. And in a case like that, you’re damned either way. Drowned either way. And as usual, I have the oddest feeling we’re talking about something else entirely.

KEITH:

Do you?

LEHRMAN:

Don’t be coy, young man. It’s not a becoming trait.

KEITH:

No, I don’t suppose it is.

LEHRMAN:

I imagine you’ve noticed that even in documentaries, people “behave” for the camera. They do it for tape recorders as well.

KEITH:

Do you know what you are, Mr. Lehrman? A consummate academic prick-tease. And I’m sick of nursing a set of researcher’s blue-balls.

(He begins gathering his materials.)

For weeks now, I’ve let you evade and dissemble to the point where I’d look for a hidden meaning if you merely said, “Good morning.” I don’t know what it is you’re so damned afraid of disclosing. Or even why, because I’ve already told you I know everything about you. And what I can’t ascertain completely, I can sure as hell extrapolate.

(Suddenly, we’re at a train station in 1942. PAUL and JOHNNY, wearing a jacket and carrying a suitcase.  Music comes in, lush and over-done: Steineresque.)

PAUL:

I—I don’t know what to say to you, Johnny. I never believed it would come to this. I was so sure I could get something arranged. So sure.

JOHNNY:

Paulie, don’t—

PAUL:

I’m sorry. I’m trying to be strong, but I don’t have it in me.

JOHNNY:

I thought I saw Millie. Outside. She waiting for you?

PAUL:

Yes. Oh, god, Johnny, I don’t believe this.

JOHNNY:

You would, if you were me.

PAUL:

Oh, understand, comprehend! But believe? Forgive? I can’t.

JOHNNY:

Paulie, stop it. I haven’t cried yet, and I won’t allow you to make me. You understand? No more words, okay?

(PAUL nods. JOHNNY takes PAUL’s hand in his and gently brings it to his lips.  Then he picks up his suitcase and walks away as PAUL watches him leave.  The music rises, swells, crashes, in the bestor worstMax Steiner tradition. At its climax, there is a kind of strobe effect, accompanied by a whirring sound, as of a film projector dying in the middle of a scene; the music slows until it runs down and stops, wobbling to a groaning close; the lights go to black.)

LEHRMAN:

Remember it right, for god’s sake. Remember it the way it was!

 (JOHNNY and PAUL reappear. This time there is no music.)

PAUL:

I should have walked over hot coals to get you that goddamned screen test.

JOHNNY:

It wouldn’t matter anyway, now.

PAUL:

Your folks, uh, have plenty of blankets? The nights are cold in Utah.

(JOHNNY nods.)

I want so desperately to kiss you.

JOHNNY:

My family’s watching.

PAUL:

Everyone is saying farewell to someone. No one is watching.

JOHNNY:

Everyone is watching.

PAUL:

Write to me.

JOHNNY:

You’re the writer, Paulie.

(Beat)

They’ll censor my letters.

PAUL:

Write to me.

JOHNNY:

(Pause)

Okay, I’ll write. Look, they’re starting to herd us animals into our pens. I gotta help my Ma.

(He looks at PAUL, then solemnly extends his hand.  PAUL looks at it, stares into JOHNNY’s face, then takes the proffered hand.  Beat. JOHNNY lets go of PAUL’s hand and, picking up the suitcase, exits. PAUL stands watching then slowly turns, devastated, and walks in the opposite direction.)

(LEHRMAN crosses back to 1972)

KEITH:

Well, you can just sit here with your palms and your cognac and play the perpetual gentleman if that’s the way you see yourself. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Lehrman: The world has never taken root. It keeps moving, even if you don’t.

(Suddenly LEHRMAN grabs the young man. They are now face to face.)

LEHRMAN:

You see, I can move.

(Pause. LEHRMAN moves his head toward KEITH, who yields.

(Now we are in the L.A. of 1939. JOHNNY appears, wearing a robe and sits, removing stage make-up. PAUL appears behind him. LEHRMAN watches the following, still holding KEITH.)

PAUL:

Excuse me.

JOHNNY:

Yes?

PAUL:

Mr. Tamaribuchi? I—uh—thought you were superb. In the play.

(JOHNNY turns now, and smiles)

JOHNNY:

Thank you. Mr. —?

PAUL:

My name’s Paul.

JOHNNY:

Well. Thank you very much. Paul.

(They regard each other shyly.)

PAUL:

Well. Perhaps I should—I mean, I’m just in your way here—

JOHNNY:

No. No, you’re not. Please stay. And please call me Johnny. I don’t get many back-stage visitors. In fact, you’re the first.

PAUL:

Really? I find that hard to believe.

JOHNNY:

That’s a—queer sort of remark.

PAUL:

Is it? I just meant, you’re so good on that stage, it’s hard to imagine no one would— People should come back-stage to compliment a performer—

JOHNNY:

(Overlapping)

Of course, if it was a come-on—

PAUL:

(Overlapping)

—as fine as you, that’s all I—

JOHNNY:

(Overlapping)

—that’d be all right, too.

(Pause)

PAUL:

—meant.

(Beat)

Would you like to have dinner?

JOHNNY:

Love to. Go to the lobby and wait for me to change into my street-clothes, okay?

PAUL:

Okay.

JOHNNY:

Paul—

(JOHNNY brings PAUL to him and gently kisses him. LEHRMAN and KEITH re-appear. KEITH is about to kiss LEHRMAN, when LEHRMAN sees that JOHNNY has turned to stare at him. LEHRMAN turns back to KEITH.  PAUL fades from the scene.)

LEHRMAN:

The master bedroom. Go—quickly.

(KEITH exits, followed by LEHRMAN.  JOHNNY moves toward him. LEHRMAN turns back and sees JOHNNY. Pause. LEHRMAN leaves, followed again by JOHNNY.) […]

Copyright 1995, 2013 by Scott Ross

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Filed under Plays

The Dogs of Foo: Excerpts from Act One

The Dogs of Foo—Description

The Dogs of Foo refracts Hollywood of the 1940s through the prism of memory, and memory through the stylistic vernacular of the movies.

The frame is a series of dialogues, circa 1972, between Paul Lehrman, a long-retired film director who has just completed his memoirs, and Keith, a young, gay cineaste contracted by Lehrman’s publisher to ghost the book. The discussions—Keith’s attempts to fill in the gaps produced by Lehrman’s memory—center around Lehrman’s past as a respected writer-director of movie adaptations and the new project on which he hopes to embark: a film adaptation of John Okada’s post-war novel of Japanese-Americans, No-No Boy.

Among the personalities whose relationship to the younger Paul Lehrman figure prominently in memory are: Sid Geldman, the savvy Russian-Jewish immigrant head of the studio whose shrewdness and love of talent are overshadowed by his flamboyantly uneducated mangling of the language; Leo Jaffe, the oily studio Production Manager; Lita Gravesend, a popular musical personality trying to attain dramatic credentials; Millie Haver, Lehrman’s cinematic muse; Polly Harper, the fanatical radio gossip; Rod Mitchell, the egocentric but sexually anxious matinee idol; the ambitious starlet Madeline Overstreet; and Sammy Detweiller, Lehrman’s contemporary, a Viennese-born writer/director, raconteur and acid-tongued wit.

Lehrman, whose homosexuality is something of an open secret, relives his 30-year-old memories even as he filters out of them those elements about which he prefers Keith remain ignorant; only the audience is privy to Lehrman’s selective memories.  This is especially true of those involving Lehrman’s sexuality:

*His love affair with the young Japanese-American actor Johnny Tamaribuchi, whose ambitions Lehrman discourages to protect him from the realities of Hollywood’s prejudice (which leads to a split between them as Johnny endures a futile pursuit of his craft at a rival studio); Johnny’s relationship with Paul—which will leave the director virtually incapable of ever again expressing love—is on an inexorable collision course with history, exacerbated by Paul’s intransigence in not trying harder to further Johnny’s career;

*His physical attraction to a rising new contract player, Tyler Davidson (doubled by the actor portraying Keith) who is willing to sacrifice Lehrman—indeed any personal happiness—to satisfy his ambitions of movie stardom;

*His climactic brush with the racist tensions (and sexual terrors) of Rod Mitchell and with Lita’s secret rage, which result in Lerhman’s removal from the helm of his massive film version of War and Peace and precipitate his withdrawal from the movie colony. In this sequence, Lehrman himself “plays” Mitchell, in effect becoming his own persecutor.

As the play progresses, Lehrman descends deeper into the realm of memory. At moments of special pain or stress he breaks through the past itself, venting his emotions at his younger alter ego as the line between past and present vanishes and he watches his own history repeat itself, helpless to alter it. Finally, Lehrman lowers his resistance to Keith, intellectually and physically, only to pull back as three decades of torch carrying—coupled with his belief that No-No Boy will never be made–conquer his momentary courage. Keith is compelled to leave the older man alone with his memories, voluntarily surrounded by the ghosts of his largely unresolved past.

      The Dogs of Foo has a cast of  11 (7m, 4f  with 1 male and 1 female each doubling 2 speaking roles) and requires fluid staging and imaginatively-designed lighting to convey its cinematic presentation, particularly that involving the collision of past and present.

The following consists of excerpts from the first act.

ACT ONE

(Bel Air, 1972. The patio garden of the retired film writer-director PAUL LEHRMAN.) […]

LEHRMAN:

[…] Gene Scharff tells me you’re something of an expert on the work of my antiquity.

KEITH:

Guilty.

LEHRMAN:

[…] Well, you’ve read the thing—tell me: do you think there’s any interest in the memoirs of an alta kaka movie director who hasn’t made a film in 25 years?

KEITH:

You’re being disingenuous.

LEHRMAN:

Realistic. I must tell you, in all honesty I’m a bit annoyed with Gene for suggesting I use a ghost on this book. I wrote thirteen pretty fair pictures in my day. And the only time someone else revised my work, I ended up being thrown off the whole silly project. So you’ll pardon my lack of enthusiasm at being told how to write this late in the season.

KEITH:

I’m not exactly salivating at the prospect of being a back-seat writer to someone of your gifts myself. In fact, it makes me damned nervous. But Mr. Scharff feels there are sections of your manuscript that are—well—thin on detail. And I agree.

LEHRMAN:

So you’re to add dashes of lubricous sex and scandal to my poor, weak porridge so we can market a minestrone, is that it?

KEITH:

If it helps, think of me less as a collaborator than as a spur to your memory.

LEHRMAN:

I’m very well aware of whose name is going to be on the dust jacket, dear boy. And I’ve absolutely no intention of thinking of you as a collaborator, so you needn’t worry about that.

(Pause)

KEITH:

I apologize if my presence antagonizes you.

(Gathering his paraphernalia)

Look, why don’t we just pretend this unfortunate meeting never happened. I showed up late, and you refused to see me. Mr. Scharff can tear up my contract, and you may go back to puttering in your garden.

LEHRMAN:

Bravo. Just what you should say. Now, sit down, calm down, drink up and tell me just what sort of a burr beneath my saddle you intend to be. 

KEITH:

(Beat)

Well, the passages Mr. Scharff would like to beef up are the ones that describe your films. You have a tendency to skim, and since there are a number of people—like me—who believe your work has been unfairly overlooked, he feels, and I feel, that there’s an advantage in having a researcher to assist you in recalling the specifics. I took this work on because I’d like to see your films re-evaluated. I mean, the lies and innuendo that have been associated with you for so—

LEHRMAN:

Such as?

(KEITH says nothing.)

You know, I’d much rather talk about the future than unearth ancient history.

KEITH:

You mean No-No Boy.

LEHRMAN:

You know about that?

KEITH:

There’s not much I don’t know about you.

LEHRMAN:

(Beat)

Indeed. Well, then. Let’s be completely honest, shall we? The only reason I agreed to this extraordinary breach of my privacy to begin with was the hope that some attention to it might assist me in getting No-No Boy made. So if I agree to work with you, there must be an understanding between us. You can ask me anything you like about my movies. I’ll open up my home, my memorabilia, my photos, my shooting scripts. I have copies of most of my films. I’ll loan them to you, screen them with you. I’ll ease your access to my friends and colleagues. I’ll do my best to answer any question you put to me without a scintilla of guile.

(Beat)

But not one word about my private life.

(Pause)

That’s not such a Faustian bargain, surely.

(Beat)

It is the films you’re interested in?

KEITH:

Yes. Yes, of course.

LEHRMAN:

Then I need a decision from you.

KEITH:

You must want to talk as badly as I want to hear you. Otherwise, why bother to meet me at all?

LEHRMAN:

Don’t be ungracious.

KEITH:

But?

LEHRMAN:

But: I want a decision. My terms. Yes or no.

KEITH:

There’s no choice, is there? Of course I agree to your terms.

LEHRMAN:

Good. Then I shall answer your questions. But not tonight. Come tomorrow with your infernal memory machine and we’ll begin again.  Seven—

(We are now in PAUL’s garden, 1940. PAUL and JOHNNY TAMARIBUCHI, a very attractive Japanese-American, 26.) 

PAUL:

—o’clock. That’s standard. It’s no joke that movie people go to bed early. Hilda will know the seating arrangements. You can defer any details you’re uncertain of to her. Now. Menu books. These are terribly important, Johnny, so I want you to listen carefully. For every dinner served at this house, I want a clear description noted in these books. Date, guest list, and, most important, who sat next to whom and what they ate.

(JOHNNY smiles.)

This is deadly earnest, Johnny. I’m not being eccentric. Good food makes good policy. If Sid Geldman likes the chicken paprikash it may put him in the right frame of mind to say yes to anything. One party’s success or failure in this town may influence Metro’s production line-up for the next six months. And a case of indigestion could very well adversely affect the national culture for years to come. So it’s absolutely essential that you remember who ate what, when.

JOHNNY:

Okay, okay! Just as long as you don’t ask me to serve.

PAUL:

Johnny!

JOHNNY:

Cecil Wentworth makes Peter tend the gardens. Why else would anyone have a Jap around?

PAUL:

Johnny, I love you.

JOHNNY:

Cecil Wentworth says the same thing to Peter.

PAUL:

Listen to me now! If we hope to carry off the idea that you’re my assistant, we have to make a pretty convincing show of it. You have to be my assistant. Even Hilda mustn’t know the truth of it.

JOHNNY:

I just wish I knew whether it was because I’m a Jap, or because we’re fags.

PAUL:

That’s a word I don’t like.

JOHNNY:

Fag”? You say it often enough.

PAUL:

Only in jest, and among family. I mean the other one. No one in this house has ever used those pejoratives, and you get no special privilege because you’re Nisei. “Jap,” “Chink,” “Kike.” They’re all the same, and I’ll not have them used in my home. Not even by you. I’m not one of those sexual anthropologists; you’re not here because I find you exotic.  Although god knows—

(He pulls JOHNNY to him)

—god knows you’re beautiful enough. Shining Prince. What was that word again? The one for lover—koibito?

JOHNNY:

Koibito. And there are times—like this—

(Kisses PAUL)

—I almost believe you.

PAUL:

Remind me to prove it. After dinner. Because as much as I’d like to play newlyweds for the remainder of the day—

(He breaks the embrace)

—we have a dinner party to arrange. And Hilda will be back any minute.

JOHNNY:

(Seductive)

You know that pillow-book Peter mentioned? I bought a copy this morning.

PAUL:

You utter rat. And I have to be at the studio early tomorrow morning.

JOHNNY:

Oh? Well, too bad. Guess it’ll have to wait.

PAUL:

How would it be if I run a documentary after dinner? That should precipitate an epidemic of early departures.

JOHNNY:

I like documentaries.

PAUL:

So do I. But they only profess to if Robert Flaherty’s in the room.

(We are now in the midst of PAUL’s dinner party. In attendance: the stunning auburn-haired actress LITA GRAVESEND, 25; the acidic Austrian-born director SAMMY DETWEILLER, 35; the lovely actress MILLICENT HAVER, 32; the gossip columnist POLLY HARPER, 45; and MADELINE AUBERSOHN, an aspiring starlet, 20; GELDMAN; JAFFE.)

POLLY:

Well, at least that dreadful Welles brat isn’t here. I can’t imagine how Paul managed it. Little Orson Annie seems to be everywhere at once these days. My dear, you can’t pass a radio in this country without that doleful baritone assailing you.

SID:

Junior, I want you should come work for me. I know you want to make it on your own, I respect that. But, my son, I ask you, in all fairness and humble: have you? What have you made? At Universal? Working for pishers! Come, bubbulah, come work for Pop. We’ll make fewer pictures, but better. I want you should make a thing of yourself. When are you going to make a thing of yourself? You’re 34 years old—my god! Christ had gotten himself crucified before he was your age!

LITA:

Millie, you’ve got to tell me about working with Rod Mitchell. I’ve heard the wickedest gossip from the wardrobe mistress at Warners.

MILLIE:

Listen, hon: anything you hear from me is going to second-hand information. I wouldn’t let that mustachioed horse’s ass touch me if I had the clap and he was the world’s last dose of penicillin.

SID:

And what’s your name, my dear?

MADELINE:

Oh, I’m no one.

SID:

None of that modesty with me, young lady.

SAMMY:

Alone at last.

JAFFE:

I knew I was having too good a time.

SAMMY:

That’s no way to talk to a friend, is it, Mr. Jaffe?

JAFFE:

If you were a friend, it wouldn’t be.

SAMMY:

You’re so hostile to me. After all I’ve done earning little golden Oscars for your boss. Why are you so hostile to me, Mr. Jaffe?

JAFFE:

Because you’re an arrogant little Prussian sonofabitch, and I can’t wait for the day when you push your luck.

SAMMY:

I heard a story the other day, Mr. Jaffe, that made me think of you.

JAFFE:

Christ. I wish I was in hell with my back broken.

SAMMY:

Ach, you make my mouth water.

SID:

Everybody is someone in America. Look at me! A haberdasher from Brownsville. Born in the Ukraine, yet. And now I make movies with no help from anyone!

PAUL:

Except the Bank of America. Hello, Sid.

SID:

Always with the wise-crackers, this one. You’ve met Paul Lehrman, Miss-I’m-No-One?

MADELINE:

Oh, yes. Hello, Mr. Lehrman.

PAUL:

Paul. You came with Millie?

SID:

Paulie, Paulie. Such ill manners. Am I to get no introduction to this charming girl?

PAUL:

Forgive me. Madeline Aubersohn, Sid Geldman. Miss Aubersohn is Millie Haver’s cousin.

MADELINE:

Of course I knew who you were, Mr. Geldman.

SID:

My dear Miss Aubershon, that’s just what I was saying—that’s America!

PAUL:

Sammy. Leo.

SAMMY:

You should hear the story I was telling Mr. Jaffe.

POLLY:

If he misses it tonight I’m sure he can catch it at the next party.

JAFFE:

(Rushing after POLLY)

Polly! Just the gal I wanted to see…

PAUL:

Tsk-tsk. So early in the evening, and already trying to self-destruct.

SAMMY:

Ach! With that thing? How many Oscars are weighing down his mantelpiece?

PAUL:

The serpentine Mr. Jaffe has a way of getting even all the same. Little naked statues or no.

SAMMY:

When I start losing sleep over a cretin like him, you can chop up my movies for ukulele picks. So, how’s the kid?

PAUL:

You mean my assistant?

SAMMY:

Is that what I mean?

PAUL:

Johnny is just fine. Why don’t you go talk to him? He likes you.

SAMMY:

I’d like to meet someone who actually likes me.

PAUL:

Everybody likes you. I like you.

SAMMY:

Nobody in this town really likes me. I insult too many of them. So, you want to hear this story or don’t you? You know the difference between a snake that’s been run over by an automobile, and—

(Indicating JAFFE)

—a production chief who’s been run over by an automobile? There are skid-marks in front of the snake.

(JOHNNY walks past MADELINE. As he nears her she swigs back her drink and as he passes, taps his shoulder.)

MADELINE:

Oh, boy—

(She extends her empty glass.)

Could you get me a drink?

JOHNNY:

No, but you might ask one of the waiters.

(He walks away, livid.)

PAUL:

Hello, my darlings. Are we still meeting for lunch at Chasen’s tomorrow?

LITA:

Natch.

PAUL:

Millie?

MILLIE:

Of course.

PAUL:

It’s about time we had a heart-to-heart.

MILLIE:

This darling girl has been sucking my veins all night to get some dirt on Rod Mitchell. Promise me by tomorrow you’ll have some to give her.

LITA:

Or is there a story you already know?

PAUL:

Me, impugn the pure and noble character of that paragon of masculine virtue? I wouldn’t dream of it.

LITA:

knew it! C’mon—spill!

PAUL:

Lunch. At Chasen’s.

LITA:

Ohhhh!!

MADELINE:

Hello.

SAMMY:

Good evening. You are a friend of Millie’s, ja?

MADELINE:

Her cousin. My name’s Madeline Aubersohn.

(She holds out her hand.  He looks at it disdainfully.)

And you’re Samuel Detweiller. I’ve seen all of your pictures. You know, I can’t decide which one I like best.

SAMMY:

Neither can I.

MADELINE:

It must be such fun to be in one of your pictures. Having all that wonderful dialogue to speak. Heaven! Say, you couldn’t write a part for me in your next picture, could you?

PAUL:

Dinner, everyone.

(SAMMY blows PAUL a grateful kiss.)

SAMMY:

Have you met Johnny Tamaribuchi?

MADELINE:

Hi.

SAMMY:

Mr. Tamaribuchi is a very big man in this town.

(MADELINE, perking up, slips her arm rather grandly in JOHNNY’s.)

MADELINE:

Have I seen you some place before, Mr. Tamaribuchi? A picture, maybe?

JOHNNY:

Yeah. It was in House Beautiful.

MADELINE:

Huh?

JOHNNY:

Skip it.

MADELINE:

Well, just what is it you do, Mr. Tamaribuchi?

(JOHNNY extricates his arm from hers)

JOHNNY:

I fuck Mr. Lehrman.

(Gesturing and smiling sweetly)

After you, Miss Aubersohn.

(In a state of shock, she goes.  SAMMY roars with laughter.)

(We are back in LEHRMAN’s garden. LEHRMAN and KEITH walking, drinks in hand.)

LEHRMAN:

I love this time of the day. The light here does such exquisite things at dusk. So much has been said, you know, and written, about how dreadful California is, but do you realize that painters used to come here just for the light? Our South of France. Something about the texture. Of course, it was much more extraordinary in the old days. Pre-smog. What’s remarkable to me is that, with that absolutely brilliant natural example, and with all the superb craftsmen we’ve had out here, so little has been done in movies to match it.

(Light from above suggests a small covered bridge: roof-slats arranged with space between thema kind of shuttering as they pass beneath.)

Of course, I don’t mean to denigrate the work of my colleagues. But that sort of work is interior. Controlled. I’m talking about natural light.

KEITH:

It’s beautiful.

LEHRMAN:

Isn’t it? Only reason I had this bridge designed. Impractical thing, really. There’s nothing down here. It doesn’t lead to anything. It exists solely to showcase the light. Which makes it about the most singularly useless object I own, I suppose. Just a prop.

KEITH:

The light’s real enough.

LEHRMAN:

Still, the structure’s designed for the effect. So, in a way it’s just as artificial as everything else in this town.

(Beat)

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had some extraordinary sunsets. But at a cost too dear for the painting. Well, now. We’ve had drinks, dinner, and a digestive constitutional, and you’ve not uttered a word of complaint that we’ve yet to speak one syllable about my career. You’re remarkably patient. The young are usually so impatient.

KEITH:

My family had three children and one bathroom. Patience isn’t a virtue with me. More like a habit. Anyway, I was waiting for you to bring it up yourself.

LEHRMAN:

Very diplomatic. I do like young people, you know. I like their energy. I like their courage. I even like their recklessness.

(We’re back in PAUL’s 1940 garden. PAUL and JOHNNY.)

PAUL:

Recklessness! Sheer recklessness! Just what in the name of all that’s holy did you think you were doing tonight?

JOHNNY:

Playing by your damn rules! What do you think?

PAUL:

After what I said this very afternoon, you go and pull a reckless, stupid stunt like Do you want to ruin your name and mine as well, for the sake of outraging that obsequious little fool?

JOHNNY:

Oh. That.

PAUL:

It means so little to you?

JOHNNY:

You saw the way she was hanging on me. First she insults me, then she all but puts my hand down the back of her dress. It’s bad enough to have to play pretend all evening for a bunch of bigots—but her! I don’t care whose damn cousin she is, she behaved like a dumb whore who doesn’t know the right ear to blow into.

PAUL:

And you wised her up—in no uncertain terms.

JOHNNY:

Would you rather I lead her on?

PAUL:

Of course not! But there is such a thing as largesse. And in a town like this, where people rise and fall on something as unpredictable as public taste, you show it to everyone.

JOHNNY:

The ass you kiss today may save your own tomorrow.

PAUL:

You keep making jokes. But you never know when a sliver of careless conversation will end up lodged in your back.

JOHNNY:

Paulie, I’m sorry.  I really am.

(Puts his arms around PAUL)

Forgive me?

(Beat)

PAUL:

Oh, of course I do.

(Embraces JOHNNY)

We’re just lucky it was Millie Haver’s cousin.

JOHNNY:

It won’t happen again.

(PAUL breaks the embrace)

PAUL:

No, I don’t think it will. Your profile will have to be lowered. For a while.

(Back to 1972.)

LEHRMAN:

The young have a natural courage. They seem to breathe a different air. It’s communicable, in a way. It was one of the attractions of university life for me when I was teaching. All that energy concentrated in one place makes the atmosphere positively kinetic.

KEITH:

A lot of that’s nothing but sex.

LEHRMAN:

Oh, of course. There’s nothing quite so potent as the hum of several thousand adolescent libidos calling out to one another. It’s no wonder the young find courage so unremarkably easy—after all, what’s more fearless than a continual erection? No wonder Eve was so easily tempted. That is, if you believe Genesis.

KEITH:

And do you?

LEHRMAN:

Will that be the lead for your introduction? “Paul Lehrman doesn’t believe in God.”

KEITH:

I wasn’t thinking as a writer just now.

LEHRMAN:

Of course you were. We all do it, every moment, we whores of invention. There isn’t an act I go through in a given moment of the day that I don’t see framed through an internal camera lens. It becomes habitual, if you have any talent at all, I think. The moment it ceases to occupy your every waking perception, the day you realize it isn’t second nature to you any longer is the day you ought to find a different profession.

KEITH:

But that wasn’t why you—

LEHRMAN:

No matter how friendly or philosophical these discussions of ours seem to be, I still have the uneasy feeling you’re taking notes. There, the light’s going. I must tell you, I’m very nervous about that damned piece of technology of yours. It makes me aware that every word I utter is for posterity.

KEITH:

We can always change a word or two here and there in the manuscript.

LEHRMAN:

Yes, but the stammering and stuttering will be locked in on those little reels of plastic tape. Which will no doubt find their circuitous little way into some university collection after I’m dead, and there I’ll be, groping for speech through whatever eternity the human race has earned for itself.

KEITH:

Think of it as a movie, with yourself as the subject.

(PAUL’s garden, 1940. He raises a glass. LITA and MILLIE lift their glasses with him.)

PAUL:

Cheers, darlings.

(They drink)

I always feel I should hurl my glass into the fireplace after a toast. It’s become a curious feeling merely to hold it.

MILLIE:

You’ve seen too many movies.

PAUL:

That’s the danger in this town, haven’t you noticed? We all see too many movies.

LITA:

What else is there to do?

(JOHNNY enters, standing at a respectable remove.)

MILLIE:

(Glancing surreptitiously at JOHNNY)

Well, there’s always sex, dear.

LITA:

No, that’s no good, either. Most of the men in this town have seen too many movies, too. Or been in too many.

MILLIE:

Speaking of men—

LITA:

Yes! Paul, you coy little fink.

PAUL:

I?

LITA:

You’ve been holding out on us, and you know it. First you seduce us into lunching at Chasen’s on the promise of some salacious gossip about Rod Mitchell, and then you say it’s too public a place. Now. There’s no one within hearing distance except us, so out with it.

MILLIE:

Yes, for god’s sake. If you have the tiniest scrap to throw this bitch, please do so. I’m so bored with the subject I could scream.

JOHNNY:

If you don’t need me any further, Mr. Lehrman—

(Pointedly)

I have some reading I’d like to do.

PAUL:

(Overly casual)

Yes, yes, of course, Johnny. I think I can manage. Thank you.

JOHNNY:

Well, goodnight, then.

(He exits)

LITA:

He never stays after dinner. I wish he would. He’s terribly good-looking.

PAUL:

Shall I tell him you said so?

LITA:

That’s all I need. Another set of balls to contend with.

MILLIE:

That makes how many—counting your own?

LITA:

Kiss, kiss, darling.

MILLIE:

You ought to cast him in something, you know. The camera would love him.

LITA:

Oh, no you don’t! Tonight it’s Mitchell or nothing. Now, give.

PAUL:

Honestly, it’s as I told you. I have absolutely no information about the breeding habits of Rod Mitchell. Nor the slightest interest. He may copulate with chickens in Macy’s window for all I care.

MILLIE:

Which I believe he has.

LITA:

All right, if that’s the way you two intend to behave, I’m going home.

(Kisses PAUL.)

I’ve just got an early call tomorrow. Millie?

MILLIE:

I’m not on set in the morning. I’ll just stay here for a bit. […]

(She and LITA exchange kisses and LITA exits.) […]

That boy really is exquisite, you know. There must be some way to get him in front of a camera, even if it’s only a walk-on.

PAUL:

He’s a man, not a boy. And I won’t lift a finger to put Johnny in a movie. He wants it too badly.

MILLIE:

Just when I believe I’m beginning to understand you, I see I haven’t begun to comprehend. If I loved a man, there’d be nothing on earth that would stop me getting him anything he wanted.

PAUL:

Millie—

MILLIE:

Oh, please don’t. This is Millie, darling. I see the way you look at him when you think no one’s paying attention. I also see the way he looks at you. And, frankly, I’ve seldom heard a crueler statement in my life.

PAUL:

Millie, Millie. You don’t see the evidence when it’s before you every day. What is the most he could ever expect? The highest pinnacle he could scale in this industry would be to play Bette Davis’ houseboat. You’ve seen it, we all have. The brightest talents of every hue come here, year after year, and either leave in disgust or resign themselves to an endless succession of the most demeaning and subservient—look at Paul Robeson! There is no way I will be a party to subjecting Johnny to that. One walk-on would be enough to inflame his fantasies to a level so unrealistic that he might never recover from the eventual realization of the unscalable wall they’ve put before him. No. I will not whet an appetite we both know full well can never be anything other than starved, slowly, to death. I care about him too deeply.

MILLIE:

I still think it’s a sin not to share that face with the rest of the world.

PAUL:

If it makes you feel any better, so do I.

MILLIE:

No, somehow that only makes me feel worse. Oh, this town makes me so fucking angry sometimes. So, nu, huh?

(They exchange a kiss)

But, Paulie. How long do you think he’s going to be content to be known as your assistant?

(PAUL doesn’t answer.)

Goddamn. Some people never learn to exit with grace.

(She goes. PAUL is oblivious to JOHNNY’s entrance. He looks up. JOHNNY smiles. PAUL looks at him. JOHNNY’s smile fades.)

(We’re back in LEHRMAN’s 1972 garden.) […]

KEITH:

You want to change the subject.

LEHRMAN:

I want to change a great many things. The subject will do for now.

KEITH:

Well, why don’t we call it a day, then? I’d have to go soon anyway. A friend of mine works for the Hollywood Bowl. He got me a ticket for tonight. They’re playing some of Rozsa’s film music. Would you like to come with me? I’m sure my friend could get you in.

LEHRMAN:

Can’t tonight, I’m afraid. […] As long as you’re seeing the sights, tell me: have you been to Grauman’s?

KEITH:

The Chinese Theatre? No. I don’t go in for tourist-y things.

LEHRMAN:

Oh, you must go! It’s the perfect Hollywood emblem. Just a moment.

(He goes off-stage)

Grauman erected two enormous beasts at the entrance, seven feet tall. Called them “heaven dogs.” Claimed they were Ming Dynasty.

(Returns, wearing half-glasses and a book. He pages, searching.)

They may even be, for all I know. Ah, here it is. Near the statuary is a sign which reads, “Half lion and half dog, these sacred sentinels stood guard for many centuries at a Ming tomb in China. These massive monsters, surnamed the dogs of Foo or Buddha combined leonine ferocity with dog-like devotion and served to terrify the transgressors and inspire the righteous.”

(Removes his glasses and closes the book.)

Of course, in Hollywood the reverse is true.

KEITH:

You mean, the righteous are terrified and the transgressors are rewarded?

LEHRMAN:

No. I mean fear inspires the self-righteous—and they can’t wait to transgress!

KEITH:

And “the perfect Hollywood emblem”?

LEHRMAN:

The architecture—it’s absolute camp. It exemplifies our fascination with the exotic, yet the fact that it’s not really Chinese comforts our collective xenophobia.

KEITH:

Repeat that for me tomorrow, so I can get it on tape.

LEHRMAN:

You should be in television.

KEITH:

I’ll see it tomorrow. Grauman’s.

LEHRMAN:

Oh, no. See it tonight. Without the lights, the full and gaudy spectacle of its sublime tackiness simply cannot be appreciated.

(KEITH starts to exit, turns.)

What?

KEITH:

Nothing. A question.

LEHRMAN:

Ask.

KEITH:

It might cross a line.

(Beat)

LEHRMAN:

Enjoy your concert.

(KEITH stands for a moment, then exits. JOHNNY enters in a bathrobe, stands in front of LEHRMAN. We are simultaneously in both 1940 and 1972.)

JOHNNY:

Why can’t you be honest?

LEHRMAN:

Johnny—?

(The light alters, casting shadows of deep evening filtered through the palms and plants.)

JOHNNY:

Answer me!

(PAUL appears)

PAUL:

Which answer do you want that I haven’t already given you? You know you’re more valuable to the studio as my assistant than you could ever be on the other side of the cameras. Johnny—

JOHNNY:

That’s not an answer, it’s an evasion.

          LEHRMAN:                                                PAUL:

                                                  (Simultaneous)

Johnny—                                                                           Johnny—

JOHNNY:

I thought you meant it when you said you weren’t like the rest of them. All of these parasites, those—goddamned—rice queens! With their glorified house-boys! You want a piece of exotic ass, go to Little Tokyo. Stop your Isotta-Fraschini on any street and open the back door. You’ll have to beat them off with a stick!

LEHRMAN:

Is that all you thought you were to me, Johnny?

JOHNNY:

What am I, if not your—

         LEHRMAN:                                                JOHNNY:

                                                 (Simultaneous)

         A houseboy?                                                          —houseboy?

JOHNNY:

Your concubine. Your geisha.

LEHRMAN:

Stop it! Stop! 

JOHNNY:

We fuck, you pay me. I must be your—

         PAUL:                                                         JOHNNY:

                                                                   (Simultaneous)

         Lover!                                                                     —whore.

PAUL:

The man I love. My dearest friend. I pay you because your assistance is valuable to me. Do you want to work for someone else? Would that remove the price tag from your back?

JOHNNY:

You know what I want.

PAUL:

No.

JOHNNY:

I want my shot, Paulie. You’ve seen me act. You know I’m better than half the stupid mannequins in this town with seven-year contracts. Is Tyrone Power a better actor than me?

LEHRMAN:

(To PAUL)

No. Tell him.

JOHNNY:

Is Flynn?

LEHRMAN:

No! You know he isn’t. Both of you! You know!

JOHNNY:

Can they move as well? When was the last time Rod Mitchell acted? What do they have that I don’t?  White skin. Round eyes.

PAUL:

I agree with you! You know I do. But what do you want me to do? I don’t set the criterion! I don’t have the power.

LEHRMAN:

Of course you do! You’re one of them! If you don’t make the rules, who does? What’s the matter with you?

PAUL:

What do you want to make a career of? Hissing, opium-doped villains? White slavers? Do you want to demean your gifts by assuming the mantle of Inscrutable Oriental master-criminal? Is that what you want? That’s one option. Or would you feel better promoting the image of the Asian Uncle Tom? Could you really be happy playing servants?

JOHNNY:

What would be the difference?

LEHRMAN:

Get him a test. Put him in a part, a good part. Small but important. Give him some dignity! Promote a new image. Be the one to slip in the first wedge. Make a contribution, goddamn you!

PAUL:

A part of you dies when you see Richard Loo and Philip Ahn debase themselves—you’ve said so. Because you know it isn’t the truth of your lives. What do you want me to do? Hand you that self-abasement on a platter?

LEHRMAN:

You! It’s always you, isn’t it? Selfish—

PAUL:

Johnny, you want too much.

LEHRMAN:

—calculating—

PAUL:

So do I, come to that.

LEHRMAN:

—egocentric—

PAUL:

But, who can I ask for what want? Not that we aren’t entitled to it. But you want too much from me.

LEHRMAN:

He wants dignity. It’s in your gift.

PAUL:

(Kneeling beside JOHNNY.)

Ask me for something I can give.

JOHNNY:

I want to be a romantic Japanese actor.

PAUL:

Johnny, there are no romantic Japanese actors!

JOHNNY:

(Beat)

And whose fault is that?

LEHRMAN:

His, I suppose.

JOHNNY:

If you won’t help me, maybe someone else will.

(Beat)

I have a screen test in the morning.

PAUL:

Oh.  Who’s—

JOHNNY:

Marshall Kramer.

PAUL:

(Beat)

I see. And what does Marshall want you to give him?

JOHNNY:

He said he might have a part for me at Paramount. He thinks I have potential.

PAUL:

I’ll just bet he does.

JOHNNY:

It just can’t be because I’m good, can it? Why are everyone’s motives suspect except your own?

PAUL:

It’s Marshall’s motives I distrust, not yours.

(Beat)

Does this mean you’re leaving?

JOHNNY:

It might. I don’t know. But Paulie—you can’t hide an actor in your guesthouse. I know how you value a sense of propriety.

(He exits)

LEHRMAN:

You disgust me! Coward!

KEITH:

Did you say something?

(We’re fully back in 1972 but LEHRMAN is halfway between worlds.)

LEHRMAN:

Johnny—? What—?

KEITH:

I forgot my notes. I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you. I’ll just—I’m sorry, I—Look, I don’t mean to offend, but are you okay?

LEHRMAN:

I must look terribly dotty to you. No, don’t mind me. I was thinking about a new scene. For No-No Boy. When I work on a script, you see, I often go into a kind of trance-state. Acting out the different parts. I’m told it’s quite unnerving. Judging by the look on your face, it must be.

KEITH:

Oh. Well, I’ll leave you to it, then. Sorry to interrupt.

LEHRMAN:

Keith!

KEITH:

Yes?

LEHRMAN:

Is it too late to say yes? To the Bowl? I think I’ve been cooped up here with my own thoughts for too long. A good concert might be just the thing to clear the cobwebs.

KEITH:

Of course. Please. Come. I’d—I’d be honored.

LEHRMAN:

I’ll only be a moment. Go on out to your car. I just want to grab a jacket.

(KEITH exits. A whisper in the breeze rifles through the fronds and leaves. It grows in texture and volume; the air seems alive with unseen specters.)

(LEHRMAN, putting on his jacket, senses it.  He stands motionless, listening, then shivers and starts to go. He sees the dejected figure of PAUL, stares for a beat, then hurries out.) […]

Copyright 1995, 2013 by Scott Ross

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The License Number

The License Number

by Scott Ross

Written for, and finalist in, Slam It!, North Carolina Playwrights Association 3-minute play competition. Carrboro Art School, Carrboro NC, September 2003. First performed by Christopher Salazar.

CODY. Young male, early 20s

He speaks frankly, openly, without shame or self-consciousness.  He talks quickly, like many young people, especially when telling a story.

 

CODY:

I used to sell a little crystal meth. You know — to get by. So this one night, I’m standin’ at my usual corner, y’know?  Waitin’ to score a sale.  And this guy comes up and he looks me over and he says, “What are you selling?”  And I’m like, “Sellin’?  I’m not sellin’ anything, man, I’m waitin’ for a bus.”  Y’know?  ‘Cause he’s dressed pretty nice.  Could be a narc.  And he says, “This isn’t a bus stop.”  So I’m thinkin’, What’s this guy want?  And he smiles and says, “How old are you?” and I get it.  Now I hadn’t ever done that before — not for money, I mean.  But it’s been a slow night, and it’s cold.  So I say, “Seventeen.”  And he says, “You want to make a hundred dollars?” and I look around and I think, No way I’m doin’ this in some alley — y’know?  So I’m like, “Where?”  And he says, “I got a room,” y’know, and he tells me the name of the hotel, and I’m like, “Yeah, I guess that’s okay.”  So we get in his car, and it’s nice, y’know?  A rental.  That’s what he tells me, anyway.  Like it would make a difference to me, y’know?   It’s my first time doin’ this for money.

See, now, I would get the license number.

(Taps his forehead)

Memorize it, you know?  Just in case.  Anyway.  We get to his hotel and he gives me the room number and tells me to wait three minutes and then come up.  So he goes into the elevator, and I’m, like, lookin’ at the magazines in the little shop they got off the lobby.  And all the time I’m watchin’ the front desk, y’know, to see whether they notice me standin’ there at all.  But, like, I guess they don’t, so after three minutes I go up in the elevator and I get to his room, and he lets me in.  He’s wearin’ this blue robe, and I can see he’s got nothin’ on under it.  The lights are dim — the way they are in hotel rooms, y’know? — but I can see him better than I could outside, and he’s really good lookin’.  About 35, I guess, but really trim.  Built, like he must work out.  And even though I should be nervous about all this — and, like, I am — I start gettin’ turned on.  He reminds me a little of this guy I knew when I was fifteen.  College kid.  They were really nothin’ alike, now that I think about it, but there was somethin’ …  This college kid, he — see, my dad walked in on us, and I thought he was still at work and we had the house to ourselves but we didn’t and he like — caught us — y’know?  Doin’ it.  And even though I was just a kid, I knew, man — I knew.  Like you do, y’know?  I never said “gay” or anything, but — So anyway.  Dad blows a gasket and he, like — he throws me out of the house.  And I got nowhere to go, so I do what I do, y’know?  What I can.  To get by.  So anyway.  The guy in the hotel room, he drops the robe, and I’m standin’ in front of him, just starin’, y’know?  Not knowin’ what I’m supposed to do, except, damn, he’s hot!  And he comes over to me and, like … embraces me.  And he says, “You’re so beautiful,” and, like … kisses me.  And it felt so nice, you know?  Like he really liked me.  And no one had ever — I mean, it had been so long, you know?  So long.  So he gets into bed, and I take off my stuff, and he turns off the light and we’re — y’know? — and it’s nice.  It’s so nice.  And then, like, right in the middle of it he says, “You want to make it a hundred and fifty?”  And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, man!”  And he says, “No condom.”  And I know it’s not a good idea, but, like, where am I gonna sleep tonight without money?  What am I gonna eat?  You know how much meth I can get with that?  So I say, “Okay,” and, like —

He fucks me.

And so now I got the HIV.

It may not have been him.  There were others.  Later. I don’t know.

So anyway, now — y’know— now I always get the license number.

Copyright 2003 by Scott Ross

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