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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There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime…

An essay from my So Few Critics, So Many Poets blog:

http://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/there-was-a-miss-jean-brodie-in-her-prime/

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Why this American is not writing a screenplay

By Scott Ross

Esquire June 1980

The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further admit to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”

Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the recognized great storytellers. I’ll wait.

Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges — or even George Lucas — I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”

Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.

Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for one meddling director interfering with, and usually demeaning, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, and discard.

William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.

Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coen brothers in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce and direct their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award — which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway — or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.

Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.” † Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?

The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: Theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York. And he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it, are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.

For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past the initial production, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure. In consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly, but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling.

Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages? Damn skippy I would. Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars? I would not.

Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques. My own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screen plays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage direction. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the first scene to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.

The impulse to write screenplays when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”

A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo. I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite his reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.

Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor.

He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”

Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.

Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”

Who would ever have thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?


*And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.

†All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.

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How I learned to stop bitching and hate Broadway musicals

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Do I even need to write the essay?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Of departed felines, former friends, and tinnitus

By Scott Ross

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January, 1984. A quondam fellow player (we met during rehearsals for the first southeastern production of Sweeney Todd, at St. Mary’s College in 1982) and uneasy friend is holding auditions for his second production of P.S. Your Cat is Dead. Victor’s persona is one I am never quite certain I really like, and while we share a great many interests in common (theatre, musicals, movies, men) and while he is capable of great kindness, I find him in many ways appallingly spoiled, strikingly closed-minded, overly theatrical and verging on the obnoxious if not actually tipping over and wallowing.
I had been flattered, a year or so before, to be asked by Victor to play the male role in Leonard Malfi’s odd one-act two-hander Birdbath for a course on directing he was taking at N.C. State, and which went well enough even though I neither cared for the play particularly nor enjoyed performing in it. I don’t recall his being an especially insightful director, but he was relaxed enough I also don’t remember any special tension during rehearsals. Still, I wasn’t eager to spend the month and a half of weeknights in his company. In addition, I was going through an extremely rough patch in my own life, having recently been canned from a job and subsisting on a dispiriting diet of temp jobs, car-less and anxious about my future. I had also, after 11 years of occasional acting, grown vaguely dissatisfied with the avocation and simply did not relish the prospect of once again trodding them well-worn boards.

There was another reason for me to be wary: As a teenager I had read Kirkwood’s later novel, based on his play. I went on to read most of his books. While Cat, as a novel, strongly indicated a looming romance between its leading (male) characters, the bisexual burglar Vito and the seemingly heterosexual actor Jimmy Zoole, it’s the only one of Kirkwood’s to embrace that possibility. In Some Kind of Hero, the overt homosexual coupling is born of terror, and not repeated. In There Must Be a Pony, the central character’s sexuality is pretty much ignored. And in the dread Good Times, Bad Times, homosexuality is acknowledged only as attempted rape of an adolescent by an unhinged ephebophile. (And fuck you, WordPress Spell-checker; if I wanted to write, “pedophile,” I would have done so.)

In American Grotesque, Kirkwood’s non-fiction account of the ludicrous prosecution by Jim Garrison of Clay Shaw for the murder of JFK, the authorial “I” only gets near the sexual act in approved, heterosexual, circumstances, when (he would have us believe) he succumbs to one of New Orleans’ more persuasive, female, prostitutes. Something in Kirkwood seemed ashamed of his own sexuality, and when he revised Cat as a play, and despite the bisexual Vito’s desire for it, the author removed all inferences of something homoerotic occurring between Vito and Jimmy. I had begun to distrust Kirkwood’s more-than-somewhat hypocritical prudery on the subject.

But to continue…

On the Sunday night of Victor’s Cat auditions, my best friend Mike and I made certain we were nowhere near the theatre. Would that we had gone somewhere other than my apartment. ‘Round about nine, Victor called. As I was renting the upper floor of his elderly aunt’s home and had no telephone of my own, I couldn’t very well pretend I wasn’t there. Very few actors had shown up for read, he said, and would Mike and I pleasepleaseplease come down to the theatre and audition?

We auditioned. And were duly cast: Myself as Jimmy Zoole (the out-of-work actor whose girlfriend has just left him, on New Year’s Eve; who subdues the burglar who has broken into his home for the third time; who ties the hapless felon to the kitchen sink of his studio apartment; and whose eponymous feline is ailing at the veterinarian’s) and Mike as the new interest of Jimmy’s ex.

We were not exactly thrilled by the news.

Cast as Vito, the hapless house-breaker, was Victor’s friend Chuck Morton. I didn’t know Chuck and had never seen him perform, but he had played Jimmy in Victor’s previous production of the play and was now essaying (or is it “assaying”?) the other lead. That this was not going to be a garden-party was brought home to me on our first rehearsal. Victor chose to meet with Chuck and me solely, to discuss the play and the roles and what he wanted from this production. Since Jimmy and Vito are on-stage almost constantly — alone together, for the most part — this seemed eminently reasonable. Until, that is, Victor kicked off the proceedings by reading aloud to us a newspaper review of that earlier show, emphasizing every negative anent Chuck’s performance as Jimmy.

His rationale was that Chuck had been miscast; that he, Victor, had himself not conquered the problem; and that this was what he wished to avoid now.

I was appalled. I don’t care much for deliberate cruelty, and this seemed to me unconscionably cruel. Had Victor said these things to Chuck in private, that would have been a different matter. But exposing my co-star, whom I had just met, to a string of unflattering critical observations with me in the room was not a move calculated to win me over. I was deeply embarrassed for Chuck, and shamed for myself, sitting there listening to it.

It went downhill from there.

Victor’s penchant for indulging his short temper, a quality I did not care for in his personality, reached its nadir one night a week before we opened. We were rehearsing the moment, shortly to cost me dearly, when Jimmy discovers Vito’s handgun on the counter. He picks it up and, being an actor, plays with it. He aims the gun and presses the trigger. Click. Encouraged, he aims again. Click. A third time. Bang! He falls on his ass from the unexpected recoil. I no longer recall whether Kirkwood wrote it this way in his script, but Victor blocked my actions as follows: First empty round, hold the gun out with one hand. Second empty round, aim it over my shoulder like an over-confident sharp shooter. And, for the bang, hold it in both hands and strike a pose. Simple enough, and reasonably clever. I went through the motions in what I thought was a fairly fluid series of movements. Wrong! Again. Wrong! Finally, Victor demanded, with rising inflections that indicated his annoyance at me, that I count to three for each pose.

Already frazzled, and liking my erstwhile friend less and less by the minute, I had what, for me, constituted a rare moment of public rebellion, no doubt fueled by mounting frustration on any number of fronts. I am normally easy with direction, and seldom show temperament in the theatre except when goaded by commands I either don’t understand, or to which I take strong exception. (I had a similar blow-up on Sweeney during the final dress. I had been trying, without success, throughout rehearsals to get the musical director to help me over that, for me, exceptionally high note on the lyric, “But in tiiiiime…” When he suddenly said, “Use your falsetto voice,” I instantly snapped, “I don’t have a goddamn falsetto voice!” Which, if you’ve never used one, is true enough.) But, in general, I maintain a placid temperament with others, and do not like it one bit when others fail to extend that basic courtesy to me in turn.

My reaction to Victor’s command, spoken with smugness that verged on a sneer, may have been somewhat childish, but I suddenly felt less like an actor than an automaton. I posed, pointed, and spoke, mechanically: “One, two, three.” Posed and pointed again: “One, two, three.” Again, dully: “One, two, three.” This precipitated a screaming fight, the memory of which I do not enjoy and which did credit to neither of us. When Victor remonstrated loudly and without the gloves, I shot back something on the order of, “If you want a robot, get one to replace me!” and stormed out of the hall.

I was quite seriously on the verge of throwing it up. I’d never quit a production before, no matter how miserable I may have been, but this was shaping up to be a major disaster. The less salutary features of Victor’s character were, as happens when a friendship is peaking and about to go into decline, dominating my apprehension of him: When one begins to fall out of love — and a close friendship is in its way very like a romance, without the eroticism — one is finally left only with what one dislikes about the loved one. And there was little about Victor I still liked, let alone loved. Somehow he talked me back into the rehearsal space, and we went on, albeit with very little energy or enthusiasm on my behalf.

As I’ve said, one of Victor’s least salient qualities was a penchant to over-react. More than once I’d been the recipient of an elaborately set-up presentation of some movie or other on laser disc at his parent’s house — although in his 30s, he was still living at home — until the day I finally sighed, “Victor, do you have to make a production out of everything?” The theatre was small, so Victor’s loud sighs from the audience when he was displeased were as audible as the actors on the stage. And, as I was wearing contact lenses at the time, I was also treated to his wildly emphatic body-language. On the final dress, when either Chuck or I — I no longer remember which — skipped a page or two of rather crucial (and complex) dialogue, Victor’s displeasure was as plain to me as my co-star. It was only through the intervention of one of his actor friends that he refrained from stopping the rehearsal cold and forcing us to go back; she, wisely, restrained him, reminding him that, once we opened and were performing for an audience, we would have to find our way back in real-time, flop-sweat and all.

At the final dress, Victor got his quiet vengeance. In reverse order of importance, the characters in P.S. Your Cat is Dead are as follows: The ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, the ex, and, sharing equal weight, Jimmy and Vito. Partly because Victor was enamored of the notion of my being seen typing at a desk (composing my new novel, presumably) as the lights came back up after the final fade and largely, I think, to get at me, I had in essence the first bow. The least, in other words, of four. (Chuck enjoyed the final bow, by himself.) Being assigned first bow is a humiliation I endured twice in my brief acting life, both as the final fruit of friendships hanging in tatters. It’s an insulting, deliberately demeaning thing to do to a performer, and, trust me, the actor knows he’s being put in his place.

But there was more horror yet. The worst, in fact, I’ve ever encountered on a stage, because its effects still dominate my life.

As Victor was producing Cat at a certain theatre in Raleigh, from which entity he’d rented the stage, we were given, as part of the deal, its usual property mistress, Maureen. (Her name has not been changed to protect the guilty.) I was no great fan of this woman, although she’d done me no harm… yet. What bothered me about her was that she allowed herself to be a living door-mat to, and all-purpose gopher and babysitter for, the theatre’s artistic director. He, who, for once, shall go nameless — all three of them — was (and is) an astounding megalomaniac, the classic big fish in the very small pond that was Raleigh theatre at that time, and (along with his then-wife, who admittedly was one of the area’s better actors) a fabled user of others. Maureen, then, could always be counted upon to drop everything in her own life and rush to take care of the pair’s spoiled, bratty young son. She seemed to have little identity outside the reflected glow of their somewhat dust-mottled limelight. I mention all this for a reason. (Wait for it, wait for it!)

It was, then, Maureen’s job to load the handgun I would be using in the first act properly, with two empty chambers and one, strategically placed, stage blank. Now, I no longer remember which night during our two-weekend run this occurred, but I can vividly recall that, as I raised the gun over my shoulder and pulled the trigger, expecting the click, a mind-numbing explosion detonated next to my ear. I had the presence of mind, comprehensible to almost everyone who’s ever performed on a stage, to react, in character, reversing my usual pratfall in favor of a drop forward. But the remainder of the act was experienced by me in a state close to shock — my ear throbbing, every noise on that stage perceived as if through a filter of lead.

This accident is surely forgivable, and would be… if accident it was. I’m not wholly persuaded of that fact. My reasons for what is admittedly a somewhat paranoid doubt are two-fold: a) I was at that time a theatre reviewer for a local weekly, and as such not beloved by many, and certainly not by [Blank-Blank-Blank]; and b) a few nights later, it happened again. The gun once more mis-loaded by Maureen… who was not, to my knowledge, ever notably incompetent or mistake-prone and who would do anything, anything at all, for [Blank-Blank-Blank].

Once, as Ian Fleming observed, may be happenstance; twice, in this instance, omits coincidence and heads, rather pointedly, straight to what Fleming referred to as enemy action.

I didn’t know, at the time, just how much damage Maureen’s little “mistakes” had done, to my hearing and to my equilibrium. My balance has never been what it was before, and I am the unhappy recipient of an increasingly maddening case of tinnitus: What is, most euphemistically, often referred to as “a ringing in the ears” is in fact a chronic affliction I wouldn’t wish on Maureen herself. Barbra Streisand, who also suffers from tinnitus, once summed it up by saying she “can’t hear the silence.” You never do. Ever. And as you age (or as I age, anyway) the volume increases exponentially. What seemed to affect a single inner-ear only gradually takes over both. There has not been a moment of any day in the past three decades when I could, or can, in that eloquent phrase of Streisand’s, hear silence.

The sound of that high-pitched, unvarying static, day and night, for 30 years creates a layer of unexpected tension which, in one already afflicted by high anxiety to accompany his chronic depression, is nearly unbearable. I brought up Cat once, on Facebook, and both Mike and Chuck remarked that they never, or seldom, think about that experience. They’re exceedingly lucky. I can’t go a single day without being reminded.

Lest this little memoir suggest that this production was a complete loss, I should mention two, very pleasant, outgrowths of the process. The first was getting to know Chuck; he’d known Victor long enough, and his own persona is relaxed enough, that he was able to psychically roll his eyes over our mutual friend’s more outrageous demonstrations. Victor’s aged mother was coping with cancer the entire time I knew her son. Sadly, she died while we were in rehearsal. Although Chuck grieved for his loss, as I did, Victor’s slightly melodramatic swoonings led Chuck to remark, after he’d left the room, “It must be tough to be orphaned at 33.”

The second was getting to write, with Chuck, a song for the production. I no longer recall whose idea this was, or why it was deemed necessary, but as a person for whom music is, despite my near illiteracy, an absolute essential and whose passion for lyrics, and lyricists, is nearly boundless, I leapt into this unexpected collaboration with great joy. Particularly since Chuck, who is musical in the very best sense, composed a lovely, lilting melody for my words. We set the lyric together, Chuck suggesting revisions, me re-working phrases, him tweaking the notes. We ended up with something of which I was almost inordinately proud. I also had the great pleasure of performing the vocal on tape, to Chuck’s accompaniment, for the first act opening.

I tried, in the chorus-less lyric, to capture Jimmy’s loneliness, his budding relationship to Vito and the unexpected meeting of two disparate lives, and some quality of Jimmy’s own, questing mind. And, although I likely didn’t recognize the fact then, my own:

How are you feeling?
How is your life?
Is it appealing,
Or reeling with trouble and strife?

Are you acting out your fantasies,
Or waiting all night by the ‘phone?
Are you planning to join the party,
Or pretend you can party alone?

Are you charting out new horizons,
Or sailing without direction?
Are you looking for someone to love,
Or afraid to make a connection?

If you have more questions than answers,
Someone new can make you believe
No matter what time of year it is,
With two,
It’s true
It can be New Year’s Eve…

Although I’m still pleased by the structure, sans chorus or refrain, the lines of each verse until the last ending in a question-mark, I’m now bothered by a couple of things in that lyric. I loathe the use of “party” as a verb, for one thing. (“Pretend you’re a party alone” would be better.) The “phone” and “alone” rhyme is trite. And “trouble and strife” is a ready-made cliché, too overused to be of value.  Still… while the shade of Johnny Mercer is hardly wailing with envy, the rest of the lyric seems all right to me. The music, however, far outshone those words; it’s plangent and quietly bittersweet, and it’s played on my mental jukebox with fair frequency for nearly 30 years.  (Chuck, who plays with the band Bellflower, tells me that, “occasionally they let me sing a lead and sneak in one of my songs,” of which “New Year’s Eve” is one. I asked only that he give me a chance to revise the lyric before he does so again. It’ll never be a classic set of verses, but I do have a few ideas to at least make it a bit less cringe-worthy.)

I did not see Victor for quite some time, after Cat. When we ran into each other one night after a play, he made a point of apologizing to me for his behavior. Likely I did as well, for my own. But the friendship was long-dead by then. Whenever I have expressed to another person a concern that some course of action — doing a play, living together — would risk ending a relationship, I’ve usually been proven right. To my cost, and with absolutely no sense of satisfaction that the outcome was precisely as I suggested was possible. In the case of Cat, my inability to remain firm in the face of my own apprehensions, cost me a lot more than a friend.

Pass the silver ear-trumpet, Eliot.

January 2014


Post-Script

I passed the foregoing to Chuck, who kindly corrected a couple of my errors, and shared his observations. I think, at the risk of coming off a touch self-serving, adding his insightful and beautifully expressed words is instructive. If nothing else, they prove that his heart is kinder than mine.

Chuck writes: Wow. These memories are so vivid for you, Scott, whereas I had forgotten (or repressed) many of them years ago. There was so much else to let go of where Victor was concerned that I have come to think of the two productions I did with him as only the most public of it. Victor was on a journey of his very own that had little to do with reality, and more to do with his perceptions of himself and the world. Being theatrical was all Victor had; it was his entire identity. He was never able to hold a job, and it was thanks only to his many repeated inheritances from an assortment of wealthy relatives that he lived so very well.

Victor had no monetary limitations, so he never did have to acknowledge the real world. The theater was his every dream, but it rejected him cruelly. Despite degrees in theater and directing from some of the finest universities on the planet, he proved to have no talent for any of it. It was a great sorrow to him. I saw him perform several times, and struggled to say kind words after. It was sad to watch a man’s only dream crash and burn.

I stayed in touch with Victor for many years, although our relationship suffered often from Victor’s excesses. I remember a poorly thought out trip to New York, where I burned through my money for the week in the first day trying to keep up with Victor’s frenzied spending at bars and expensive restaurants. I remember a very awkward dinner party at his house where drugs played a role in a disastrous evening. I remember many times running into Victor at area bars and clubs, and tiring of hearing the same stories shouted in my ear time after time. “I just returned from New York where I saw the most FABULOUS play.”

[Personal Note the First: I can attest to the absolute veracity of that statement. It’s Victor to the very “t” in the middle of his name.]

Still, although Victor lived with his father in the same house until his father’s death a few years ago and contributed nothing of value to my life or anyone else’s, you just had to love the guy. It was almost as if his faults were his most endearing characteristic. The stories I could tell – the ’67 Firebird driven drunkenly through the JC Penney’s all the way from sporting goods to women’s wear, the many drunken scenes at area gay bars, and a bunch of loud lunch dates at upscale restaurants all over town (although never the same one twice).

After Victor’s father died Victor was placed in a nursing home where as far as I know he lives today. He cannot move, nor is he connected to the here and now in any way. He has been bedridden with some unknown malady for about ten years now, his infinite money going to keep him alive in a hospital bed with tubes and apparatus. I haven’t been to visit him there in a couple of years, for which I feel somewhat guilty. It is hard not to love a friend who so clearly loved me […]

One redeeming characteristic Victor always had was that he at least meant well. Small consolation for the actual harm he frequently caused.

The production you speak of was the last time I attempted acting. I only dabbled with it for a year or two, and two productions with Victor were enough to convince me to leave it alone. Yes, the production we shared was by every definition a disaster. Even still, I remember it fondly as one of my greatest adventures.

The song we wrote together is the first I ever wrote in collaboration, recorded, and performed in public. I thought it was a good song, and yes I still dust it off and play it once in a while.

The best thing to come from this awful production however is that I came to know Scott Ross. For that reason alone it was worth doing.

[Personal Note the Second:
I hope I conveyed, above, my mutual feelings anent Chuck. I certainly meant to.

I don’t know why I retain such vivid memories of things and places and people and events, when usually I can’t recall without prompting what I did yesterday afternoon. Of course, memory itself is suspect, as I now gather that what we think we remember is often our memory of remembering… which makes rather a hash of almost every memoir ever written, or even any memory we have. Or think we have? Am I remembering what actually happened, or did it not happen at all, or did it happen entirely differently than I remember? When others say they have no memory of events we’ve shared, I now start questioning myself: Did private emotions heighten the sense of things for me in a way that alters reality itself in the recall? Or did I just retain a sharper mental image of what happened, for reasons having to do perhaps more with my emotional states, and my own obsessions?

Is, as the King of Siam would say, a puzzlement.]

 

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The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

By Scott Ross

“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Walldenda, quoted in All That Jazz

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took us to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas, as is that dinner theatre.) The next day, a Saturday, my best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar ® win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference between it and a cast album.)

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At the time, I was a sufficient musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs the movie’s producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the scenarists Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score. I also missed the Lenya figure, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Christopher Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret as film dovetailed with Isherwood’s original, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli — and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, by Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

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Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant as yet with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals (and not having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two) that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically (as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show) but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

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Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (after a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

These less personal and more thematic revelations came to a head later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret that made explicit that Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts (York) have both been sexually involved with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first, I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue (Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian! / Sally: I do. / Brian [after a shocked pause, smiling]: So do I.) I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there was such a thing as sex in the world! Not merely, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative, non-procreative sex!

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Timothy Scott in the Dancin’ first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. Photo by Martha Swope.

Flash-forward to December 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18-year-old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was, physically, definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home, I wrote him a fan letter; it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. My psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species, mine on the male.

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Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a local production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

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Rowell Gormon, Life with Father‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret’s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement. Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

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In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than my seeing Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major, nicknamed, show-biz awards (Oscar®, Tony®, Emmy®) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his movie debut, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

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So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishing on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some elemental fashion, personally repellent.

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On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those who, like me, are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am at best a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what my best friend and I think of as “the backstage stuff.” Do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militates against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. And thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play— and do. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, admittedly, exhausting) ruminations are occasioned by my having finished reading Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards (the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser) held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. And given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible.

And so I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual.

If that is explicable due to its subject’s love affair with death, it is so only in part: I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of Fosse’s psychology. Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique. Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that got to me; six-hundred pages’ worth of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

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But is that due to Fosse — or to Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means. Yet what you carry with you is, not the indelible imagery the man left us but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life. Or, in any case, of the life Sam Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten. The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse. They’re like those shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny, Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I simply cannot imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a jolly romp by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively, if selectively. While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail, routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried, aghast, watched, helpless and terrified.

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Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. For a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s partner, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader. As is Wasson’s citing of Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward was, for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps, their first friend and colleague to succumb to the virus.

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Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin which Wasson ignores, and which Gottfried presumably never read) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, no, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.

cabaret - menage

The sexy, brilliantly staged, and acted, invitation to a menage in Cabaret.

I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon has actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly almost-ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences, but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

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The mesmerizing male pas de deux in “All That Jazz.”

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academicized, grasp of critique, is puzzling at best. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that were the editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could surely have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font. Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’, or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal, and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a rather poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By, to produce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is (at least for the moment) eternal, and each of Fosse’s quartet of movies is available for perusal and rife for commentary.

dancinorig460

Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in Dancin’, photogrpahed by Martha Swope.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely, a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due to what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: Say, the popular revue Fosse which, while preserving his choreography, also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than staged concert but one that, nonetheless, proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (though also massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the musical numbers existed. If you have to explain the reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?

Fosse is, despite these many cavils, a thoroughly engrossing book. Wasson’s many interviews with Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out!) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret; Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it.

It is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Wasson’s Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is all. Thus: The endless sexual conquests that make Bob Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love of and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satyrically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. Yet the gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of staggeringly effective cutting. Instead, we get: The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips. The drinking, the drugs. The manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing both to Fosse’s self-made myth and to his early demise… but much of it as well repetitious to the point of authorial obsession.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the appalling world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t make his accomplishments deathish.

FilmMag1-746x1024

The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and All That Jazz.


 

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what is, in the end, a biography more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but utterly exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth, had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of condoning his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist or adorning him in mindless hagiography, but in the wider meaning: As one who expresses an understanding of the art itself, and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is all that really matters.

Everything else is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Filed under Books, Personal Hisotry

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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