Thursday, December 16, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Crashing Through the Ceiling of Despair"


CRASHING THROUGH THE CEILING OF DESPAIR
by Douglas Messerli

Tony Kushner Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Walter Kerr Theatre,
New York / 1993

Despite all the attendant hoopla and acclaim, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is truly a great American play. Ranging from the Plague of the Middle Ages through American history (from Ethel Rosenberg and the McCarthy hearings to the Regan days) and into the subconscious of American belief (the play begins with a Rabbi, focuses upon a Mormon couple, and ends with a Catholic angel), the play pushes out beyond the traditional Broadway fare, and explores some rather terrifying aspects of the American psyche.

With comic horror, Ron Leibman portrays Roy Cohn as a mad Faustian force underlying American politics. Power is the only definition of the human species in Cohn’s lonely world at the top; abusing those around him and himself, Cohn denies not only his own sexuality, but sex as anything but another form of power, a sadomasochistic act in which one is either consumer or consumed. But Cohn’s world is a deflationary one; dying of AIDS he refuses to face the implications that he has become one of the consumed, eaten up by his equally predatory cronies and closet homosexuality.

Despite Cohn’s own definition of centrality, Kushner places Cohn at the edge of his play, balanced by a Mormon couple desperate to live out their religious convictions. Harper Pitt, as deluded as Cohn, lives in a pill-popping reality of hallucinatory eco-systems, fortunetelling drag-queens, and Eskimo lovers. Her lawyer husband Joe has attempted to scrub his existence clean of all usual feelings to deny his latent homosexuality; but as Cohn attempts to manipulate him into a father-son-holy savior relationship, Joe’s sexuality becomes apparent, creating a barrier around him and everything he supposedly respects and admires. Trapped on the outside of his own life, Joe rushes into the arms of Louis Ironson, a man who has also been unable to live according to his convictions.

Louis and his dying lover Prior are at dead-center of Kushner’s gay anatomy. In one of the very first scenes of this 3 1/2 hour play, Prior announces to Louis that he has AIDS, and for a while it appears that Louis, a true American idealist, will succor him and help him to face his death. But Louis, like most idealists, is more in love with language than the pain and sour smells of the human body from which it emanates. He bolts, taking with him, so it would seem, all hope of salvation. We are left at the end of act two with three versions of hell.

But Kushner refuses to allow us the sentimentality of failure; and despite occasional lapses into Boys in the Band-like dialogue and Neil Simon situations, the author undercuts any simple condemnations. No, there is something better than the condition of these poor humans; there is the vision of a Christ, so Kushner seems to argue; there is forgiveness. There is always that angel about to crash through the ceiling of one’s despair.

Religion, forgiveness, angels in a world of corrupt politics and AIDS: these are rare concepts in our either bigoted or correct-thinking dichotomies of today. It is a bold act to write such a play, and even bolder to threaten “peace” (Perestroika) as a conclusion to this panoramic examination of the heart.

Los Angeles, 1993
Copyright (c) 1993 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "Unburying the Dead"


A scene from the 2006 New York revival
Unburying the Dead
Douglas Messerli

Sam Shepard Buried Child, Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1978

In Rome I read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child for the first time, surprised by how similar it was to my own play The Confirmation. In both plays the action centers on a dysfunctional family to which the return of a family member accompanied by an outsider results in the revelation of a terrible family secret that may or may not be true. In both plays the vernacular of American everyday phrases and clichés combines with the bizarre behavior of family members to create a highly comical tone. I love the comic scenes of Shepard’s play, the absurd upstairs/downstairs conversation between husband and wife, Dodge and Halie; the hilarious gardening of Tilden, who discovers whole armfuls of corn and carrots in a backyard without a garden; and the mad family interchange between Dodge, Tilden, Vince and Shelley, in which grandfather and son seem unable to recognize or even recall the existence of Vince, who Halie later describes as having been “the sweetest little boy.” But then, this family hardly recognizes family members with whom they live, each describing one another as utter failures, and yet each nearly unable to care for himself.

The play is flawed, however, by the heavy metaphor (and possible reality of) the “buried child,” purportedly a child that came late in Halie’s life and was killed by her husband because it was the offspring of another man. Were Shepard simply to use this as metaphor, allowing the audience to heavily doubt Dodge’s admission—as they learn to doubt all of his other statements—it would still float heavily upon the play, but it might remain aloft. For, quite obviously, all Dodge’s and Halie’s children are “buried,” remnants of the couple’s desperate embracement of the American Dream. Tilden, the eldest, has a criminal record and, having lost his freedom, has also lost much of his mind. Bradley is half a man, an amputee and, in the manner of a Beckett character, is unable to even move throughout much of the play; Ansel—the basketball and soldier hero—is, in fact, dead, another buried child for whom Halie seeks a memorial statue, basketball in one hand, rifle in the other. This family’s refusal to recognize Tilden’s son, Vince, renders him, like the others, incapable of action, independence, escape. He may have come home to re-experience—as Shelley sees it—a Norman Rockwell vision of home life, but has found instead a household right out of The Addams Family. As a man of inaction, Vince is the rightful inheritor of the estate, and when Shelley’s departs, he is doomed to a life, like all the others, without vitality and love.

Shepard, however, cannot leave his metaphor alone, forcing Tilden to dig up the symbol and, in mud-covered clothes, visually “serve it up,” so to speak, to the audience. Like Jonathan Barofsky’s Hammering Man, Shepard drives his message home, deadening any true wonderment that previously existed in the work.

Café Mancini, Rome, October 15, 2003
Copyright (c) 2003 by Douglas Messerli

Claudio Magris TO HAVE BEEN


TO HAVE BEEN
by Claudio Magris
trans. from the Italian by Paul Vangelisti

And so Jerry is dead, never mind, that isn't the problem, neither for him nor anyone else, not even for me who loved him and still love him, because love doesn't conjugate—my God, in that sense, of course, what's next, though love has its grammar and doesn't know tenses only verbal moods, in fact, just one, the present infinitive, when you love it's forever and the rest doesn't matter. Any love, any kind of love. It's not true that you get over it, nothing goes away, and this is often the particular rub, but you carry it along with you, like life, and even that is not really such great luck, except that you get over love even less than life. It's there, like starlight, who gives a damn if they are alive or dead, they shine and that's that, and though in the daytime you can't see them but you know they are there.

So we won't hear that guitar anymore, and that's fine too, you can learn to get along without anything. God, how he could play. And when his hand didn't work anymore, he pulled down the blinds and kissed it all goodbye. To that, I've no objection. Sooner or later it happens, and it doesn't matter much how, anyway it has to happen, and who knows how many of us here this evening, ladies and gentlemen, will be alive in a month's time, certainly not everybody, it's statistically impossible. Someone who is pushing his neighbor or complaining because the person in front of him is blocking his view of the stage has already gone to the barber for the last time, but never mind, a year more or less doesn't make much difference, I don't feel bad for those who kick the bucket and I don't envy those who keep on going, nor do I care much to know what group I fall into.

Amen for Jerry, and for everybody and everything. As I said, I can't find fault with his decision, when someone wants to get off the bus, it's right to get off, and if he prefers to jump off while it's still moving, before the stop, that's his business. Someone can be fed up, tired, unable to take it anymore, what do I know. When seeing him down like that because he couldn't play as before, to cheer him up I told him that he had been one of the greats of the guitar, and he said that for him it wasn't enough to have been. He wanted to be—it didn't matter what, a musician, a lover, anything, but to be.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in that moment I understood what great luck it is to be born like me, or to have an uncle or grandfather or whomever, born in Bratislava or Lwòw or Kaloea or in any other dump in this shabby Central Europe, which is a hell, a real cesspool. It's enough to smell that musty odor, that stink which is the same from Vienna to Czernowitz, but at least it doesn't force you to be, on the contrary. Yes, if Jerry had understood, when his hand didn't work anymore, his great luck in having been, the freedom, the vacation, the great privilege of not having to be anymore, of not having to play anymore, his free pass from the barracks of life!

But maybe he couldn't, since he wasn't born or raised in that stagnant Pannonian air, thick as a blanket, in that smoke-filled tavern where you eat badly and drink even worse, but are happy to be there when it's raining outside and the wind is howling—and outside, in life, it's always raining and the wind cuts through you. Yes, any grocer in Nitra or Varazdin could teach all of Fifth Avenue—except for those maybe who come from Nitra or Varazdin or some other place in those parts—the happiness of having been.

Oh, the modesty, the lightness of having been, that uncertain and accommodating space where everything is as light as a feather, against the presumption, the weight, the squalor, the freight of being! Please, I'm not talking about any kind of past and even less about nostalgia, which is stupid and hurtful, as the world itself says, nostalgia, the pain of returning. The past is horrific, we are barbaric and evil, but our grandparents and great-grandparents were even fiercer savages. I certainly wouldn't want to be, to live in their time. No, I'm saying that I would want to have always already been, exempt from the military service of existing. A slight disability is sometimes a way out, protecting you from the obligation of joining in and losing your skin.

Being hurts, it doesn't let up. Do this, do that, work, struggle, win, fall in love, be happy, you must be happy, living is this duty to be happy, if you're not how shameful. So, you do all you can to obey, to be as good and clever and happy as you ought, but how can you, things just fall on top of you, love smacks you on the head like a chunk of masonry off a roof, a wicked punch or worse. You walk hugging the walls to avoid those crazy cars, but the walls are crumbling, sharp rock and glass slicing your skin and making you bleed, you are in bed with someone and for an instant you understand what real life could and should be and it is an unbearable pang—picking your clothes off the floor, getting dressed, getting out and away. Luckily there's a bar nearby, how good a coffee or a beer tastes.

Yes, drinking a beer, for instance, is a way of having been. You're there, sitting down, you look at the foam evaporating, a little bubble every second, a heartbeat, one beat less, rest and the promise of rest for your tired heart; everything is behind you. I remember that my grandmother, when we went to visit her in Szabadka, would cover the sharp corners of the furniture with cloths and put away the iron table, so that we children wouldn't get hurt when we ran into something racing around the house, and she would even cover the electric plugs. To have been is this, living in this space where there are no sharp corners; you don't scrape your knee, you can't turn on the lamp that hurts your eyes, all is quiet, time out, no ambush.

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is the heritage that Central Europe has left us. A safe-deposit box, empty but with a lock on it to keep out bank robbers who might want to put who knows what inside it. Empty, nothing that grabs your heart and bites into your soul, life is there, already been, secure, safe from any accident, an out-of-circulation bank note for a hundred old crowns that you hang on the wall, under glass, with no fear of inflation. Even in a novel, the best part, at least for the writer, is the epilogue. Everything has already happened, been written, worked out; the characters live happily ever after or are dead, it's all the same, in any case nothing more can happen. The writer holds the epilogue in his hands, rereads it, maybe he changes a comma, but he runs no risk.

Every epilogue is happy, because it's an epilogue. You go out on the balcony, a breeze comes through the geraniums and the violets of thought, a drop of rain slides down your face; if it rains harder you like to listen to the drumming of the fat drops on the awning. When it stops you go take a little stroll, you exchange a few words with the neighbor you meet on the stairs; neither for him nor you does it matter what s said, it s just a pleasure to hesitate there a moment and from the window on the landing you can see way down there in the distance a strip of sea that the sun, now out from behind the clouds, lights up like a knife blade. Next week we're going to Florence, your neighbor says. O yes, its nice, I've been there. And in this way you save yourself the fuss of traveling, the lines, the heat, the crowds, looking for a restaurant. A stroll in the evening air fresh with rain, then back home. You must not wear yourself out, otherwise you'll get too excited and sleep won't come. Insomnia, ladies and gentlemen, believe me, is a terrible thing. It crushes you, suffocates you, follows at your heels, chases you, poisons you—yes, insomnia is the supreme form of being—insomnia, that's why you have to sleep, sleeping is the only antechamber of the true having already been, but meanwhile it's already something, a sigh of relief...

_____
Copyright ©1988 by Claudio Magris. English language translation ©2007 by Paul Vangelisti. Reprinted from Claudo Magris, Voices: Three Plays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007). Reprinted by permission


Born in Trieste in 1939, Claudio Magris is a major Italian scholar, translator, and writer. His first book, Il mito absurgico nella letteratura austriaca maderna of 1963, focused on the Habsburg myth of Austrian literature, reintroducing many works of Central European culture to Italy. His journalist writings have been collected in Dietro le parole (Behind Words) and Itaca e oltre (Ithaca and Beyond). His first novel, Inferences on a Sabre was published in 1984. A second book, Danubio (Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea) was published in 1986. Microcosmi appeared in 1998.

Magris's plays Stadelmann (1988) and Le Voci (1999), along with the monologue printed above, established him also as a significant Italian playwright. They are collected in Voices by Green Integer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Douglas Messerli "On the Side of the Angels"


Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Jerome Robbins

Tom Bosley and cast in Fiorello!, cover of Life

Barbara Cook in She Loves Me


ON THE SIDE OF THE ANGELS
by Douglas Messerli

The news of the death, on November 3rd, of Broadway composer Jerry Bock loosened within me on a series of memories relating to his numerous compositions. Combined with the death, on October 24th of Joseph Stein, writer of the book of one of Bock's greatest hits, Fiddler on the Roof, and the death of actor Tom Bosley, the lead in Bock's early musical Fiorello!, a few days earlier on October 19th, it seems almost as if an entire gathering of Broadway greats connected with Bock and his still-living lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, has been swept away.

Jerrold Bock was born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut, but was raised in Flushing. What I didn't know was that Bock attended what might have been my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin; he was already a noted piano player and beginning to compose. During the 1940s and early 1950s Bock worked on Sid Ceasar's and Imogene Coca's television shows, leaving for Broadway in 1955 to write for the revue Catch a Star. The following year, Bock again worked with Lawrence Holofcener, along with Joseph Stein, on the musical, Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. It ran for 383 performances.

In 1958, Bock again worked with Stein, along with a new lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, on The Body Beautiful about a would-be fighter from Dartmouth. The musical lasted only 60 performances, but was musically strong enough that it attracted the attention of veteran director and scriptwriter George Abbott and producer Hal Prince, who chose the Bock and Harnick team to compose their 1959 production on the life of New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Fiorello!, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize. Starring Tom Bosley as La Guardia, it ran on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre and, later, The Broadway Theatre, for 759 performances.

Fiorello was one of the earliest original cast recordings that I purchased at a time when my house still hand no record player. When my parents broke down and purchased a stereo, I listened to it time and again, until I had nearly memorized the music and lyrics. I recently heard it again, and am still humming "On the Side of the Angels," "The Name's La Guardia," and the hilarious "Little Tin Box."

"Standing firm, side by side, on the side of the angels"—at least of the "producing" kind—the team of Bock and Harnick went on the next year to write, again with Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, a musical on the 1890s red-light district of Manhattan, Tenderloin. Although this work lasted only 216 performances, it received good reviews and several of its cast members were nominated for awards. One of the show's songs, "Artificial Flowers," sung by Bobby Darin, became a popular hit.

In 1963 the two wrote an acclaimed marionette show, The Man in the Moon and still found time to compose one of their most beloved musicals, She Loves Me. Based on the film, The Shop Around the Corner and Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie before that, the Bock and Harnick version featured such Broadway greats as Daniel Massey, Barbara Baxley, Jack Cassidy, Ludwig Donath, and the incomparable Barbara Cook, as a stunningly beautiful Amalia Balash.

I first heard of the musical's existence from Peggy Cass on the television show To Tell the Truth, when she begged people to attend the musical which she had seen the night before the broadcast. It is so wonderful, so magical, she suggested, that everyone should come and help it to survive.

Alas, the show lasted only 302 performances. But for me, it has lasted an entire lifetime. In 1963 I ran out immediately to buy the original cast recording, and sat for hours listening to its elegant songs. It seemed—and seems still today—unlike any other musical. It has no particularly hummable songs or any number that might stand apart from the whole—except perhaps for the purposely sentimental "Days Gone By." But then one loses the irony of that piece outside of the production. The major songs of the musical, "Tonight at Eight," "Will He Like Me?" "Vanilla Ice Cream," and "She Loves Me," are all about love in some respects, but are filled with the terror of the future, a fear of remaining unloved, and a simple nervousness that things might not go "right," none of them, except the last, really standing alone as a love song. And that title song is sung by the hero to himself, based on a realization that the love is a secret from the lover herself. Cook sings "Will He Like Me?" with such a lush trepidation that the work absolutely radiates, as does her "Vanilla Ice Cream," whose major lyrics consist of a statement of wonderment: "He brought me vanilla ice cream." Another Cook song consists primarily of the question "Where's my shoe?" Yet every song seems nearly perfect, and I listen to them often.

This musical has appeared again and again in my life at important times. As I roamed the University of Wisconsin campus in 1966, a trip that determined I would transfer from Milwaukee to Madison, I wandered far beyond the English Building, then at the top of Bascomb Hill, down to the agriculture school and other far-flung areas. I was struck with the vastness of the campus. But I was also intrigued by what looked like a large tent sitting at the top of a hill upon which, apparently, a series of bleachers had been constructed. Sneaking in through a back tent flap, I saw far below me a stage on which the actors were rehearsing, to my surprise, She Loves Me. Apparently this production was preparing, after a couple performances on campus, to travel to outlying communities throughout the state, visiting the university's agricultural constituents, serving as a kind of cultural outreach. I sat for several hours without discovery, enjoying the live performance alone.

Later in 1978, Howard and I caught the PBS production of the musical on television, and for a while we owned a tape of that performance, which mysteriously disappeared a few years later. I also happened to be in New York during the 1993 Roundabout revival at The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and quickly purchased a ticket to the show. That version, staring the engaging Boyd Gaines and Diane Fratantoni ran for 354 performances. I have to admit that I loved it so much that tears remained in my eyes for most of the evening.

Only a year after this memorable work, Bock and Harnick again struck gold with their famed Fiddler on the Roof, a musical I saw upon returning from a year in Norway in a traveling production in Chicago and, later, in other cities, including, I believe, Madison.

Fiddler was, quite obviously, their greatest "hit," even if it is not my personal favorite. With Zero Mostel at the helm, Bock and Harnick's Russian hamlet of Anatevka was depicted with larger than life types. And here the team did write several songs that would become popular outside the musical setting, including "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," and "Far From the Home I Love." One of the biggest musical hits on Broadway, it ran 3,242 performances before closing, and his been revived several times, most notably in 2004, when it ran for 781 performances.

The remainder of the Bock and Harnick musicals, the delightful The Apple Tree, The Rothchilds, and their contributions of Never Too Late, Baker Street, and The Madwoman of Central Park could not, in my estimation, match their earlier works. The Rothchilds had a long-running production of 505 performances, but I do not feel it comes close to Fiorello!, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof in its musical energy. But who's complaining? Jerry Bock is clearly one of the great American musical composers, and the theater will be less exciting without him--as well as writer Joseph Stein, and actor Tom Bosley. In their deaths we have lost much of our courage as well as part of our hearts.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Douglas Messerli "This Is It"





ALL MY MYSELF
by Douglas Messerli

Kenny Ortega (director), with performer Michael Jackson This Is It / 2009

Joey Arias (performer), Basil Twist (director) Arias with a Twist / Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at The Walt Disney Concert Hall, November 21, 2009

Despite the obvious outcries by viewers and critics that This Is It does not portray a performance (indeed there is no audience other than the stage workers, waiting dancers, and others involved in the show) and that it is not even a film (having been intended as a personal documentation of the rehearsals) I found the work to be extremely watchable, if only because its focus, Michael Jackson is, metaphorically speaking, so "blurred out" that he creates an even greater mystery about him than the cause of his recent death.

A boy (even at the age 50), yes, a sensational dancer (indeed, but not, necessarily, here: although many of moves are quick and lithe, the overall choreography, particularly in the robot army number, is based more on fascistic-like marches rather than the smooth glide across space we usually associate with Jackson), a singer (true, but although we get various passages from his catalogue of "greats," for the most part the performer is not singing to his full capacity in an attempt to "save his voice"; at one point when he does begun to belt out a song, he interrupts, "Don't make me sing full out.")

When he does speak, it is, for the most part, psychobabble about his caring for the earth (the worst number in the film is the unbearable "Earth Song"), a hand-joining pep talk with his talented dancers, musicians, and staff, and quiet mumblings when something goes amiss. The most insightful moments are when Jackson speaks of his art, of the necessity of waiting between beats, stepping at the right moment into the spotlight, pausing in a musical phrase, getting the precise beat of a song. If nothing else, it is clear that Jackson is a consummate showman. Yet we get little insight into the man, and only glimpses of what the final performance might have looked like. Certainly it would have been somewhat spectacular, but clearly, also, it might have revealed that the aging Michael was no longer at his top, and the directions in which his art was apparently taking him were distances from the Astaire-like perfections of "Thriller" or his famed "moon walk."

I know I will be heckled, perhaps even hated, by all those who love the "King of Pop," but I feel that Jackson's music was never his great contribution. Most of his best known songs are repetitive ditties gaffed up by inward gulps of breath and sigh. He was a great dancer, a performer who knew up until the last day of his life how to move his thin body to convey a deeply asexual sexuality that made him into something for everybody to love. But This Is It, I am afraid, is not what it/he is or was. If anything, the documentary further mystifies us in our search to find out who this "man in the mirror" was. Here he remains only a shadow of a shadow, and one wonders "Does he have any reality away from his audience?" One comes to see him, ultimately, as one of the most lonely beings in the universe, like a frightened child, demanding doctors be there every night to put him asleep. Was he afraid of death or afraid of life?

A few days after seeing This Is It, I attended a performance of the drag queen Joey Arias directed by Basil Twist. Like Jackson, Arias is an excellent performer, but here it is the voice that dominates, not the feet. Indeed for his great dance finale, Twist provides him with dozens of dancing legs and scene right out of Busby Berkeley, yet those high kicking gams are puppets, not Arias' own slim limbs.

While Jackson worked big, on a gargantuan scale, Arias does more with small, working with the stunning sets and costumes of Twist, Thierry Manfred Mugler, and Chris March.

Without any apparent logic, Arias begins his vocal narrative as a captive in a alien space ship, attentively watched over by alien men, until, evidently thrust out of this spatial Eden she falls through space into a kind of campy corduroy-covered jungle, an earthly Eden with a large python slithering through its confines.

Evidently Arias is thrown out of that heaven as well, ending up, inevitably, in Hell, sexually entrapped by Satan's slaves and soon after wrapped in the arms of a giant squid.
Appearing like a slightly pouting, perhaps betrayed dominatrix with a long pony tail, Arias sings out in raspy voice through an equally hair-extended mic in a manner that is often more interpretive than Madonna or even Bette Middler, beginning with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and moving quickly into Lennon and McCartney's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Her moving version of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" and the Billie Holliday-like rendition of "You Changed" is vocally more powerful than anything Michael Jackson might have spit out.

Suddenly it's time for her to get herself down to The Great White Way, but her talent is so enormous that when she arrives in Manhattan she is the size of King Kong, swallowing up male passengers on trains and in taxis as she moves through New York's neighborhoods, ending up in a scene right out of a motion picture musical.

Like Jackson's missing person, Arias' twisted being—that is, his persona—is just that, a figure of true talent, funny and entertaining enough for anyone to enjoy, but also a kind of monster who can never quite fit into everyday life.

Needless to say both audiences for This Is It and Arias with a Twist applauded with complete abandon.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Friday, December 10, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Bow Down and Be Dim"





BOW DOWN AND BE DIM
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams Vieux Carré, conceived and performed by The Wooster Group / the performance I saw was on Sunday, December 5, 2010 at Redcat (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in The Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex, Los Angeles

Although Tennessee Williams began writing his play Vieux Carré in 1938, the play did appear on Broadway until 1977, and then lasted only 5 performances. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summarized: " It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere," but admitted that that might be said of any Williams play. "You leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret," he concluded.

The Wooster Group's recontructed performance of this unknown work leaves one, strangely enough, with the same feeling, that Williams is revealing something here that no matter how you reimagine its structure remains potent. If his autobiographically-tinted The Glass Menagerie only hints at personal realities, the next step of his life—Williams emergence into the dark world of New Orleans' French Quarter—is revealed with an almost horrific honesty that can only make one, at times, want to look away.

If "Rise and Shine" was the daily aspiration in that earlier play (at least for Amanda Wingfield), The Writer of Vieux Carré seems to live a life in the shadow of his mother's proclamation, in a world ruled by a declaration to "Bow Dow and Be Dim." From the beginning of the play, all the characters, except The Writer (Ari Fliakos) have learned how to crawl. The metal-like cages of the Wooster production which signify the rooms of Mrs. Wire's (Kate Valk) boarding house for the destitute are strewn with clothing and personal belongings as if the inhabitants spent most of their lives on the floor or in bed. In fact, they do precisely that.

Mrs. Wire has recently taken to sleeping in the hall in order to keep a better eye on her immoral and deceitful tenants, shouting out for the occasional help of the mad travesty of a nurse, "Nursie" (Kanez Schaal), who seems simultaneously permanently servile and yet about to revolt. The Writer's next door neighbor, the artist Nightingale (the excellent Scott Shepherd), goes about, in this version, with a large rubber dildo sprouting through the zipper of his pants. This gay Priapus is forever on the make, and knows just how to relieve the sufferings of the lonely new boy just landed in this dump. Yet, of all the characters, the consumptive artist is the most loving and caring, at times almost replacing the resilient southern mother The Writer has left. Certainly, like Amanda Wingfield, he has the most comic lines.

In what I now perceive as a brilliant directorial decision, Elizabeth LeCompte cast two of the characters as their polar opposites. Kate Valk, the dreadful Mrs. Wire, also plays another of The Writer's acquaintances in this zoo of lost lives, Jane Sparks, a seemingly normal young woman who has somehow lost her way, becoming trapped in a life given over to sex. The object of her desire is a seedy hick who works at the local strip bar, Tye McCool (also Scott Shepherd), who is anything but "cool," but like Nightingale goes about with a hard-on most of time and sees himself as a kind of heterosexual Priapus who won't "let a fag blow him for less than a $100." Both Nightingale and The Writer desire him, despite their recognition that he is a burned-out heroin addict. In the lonely world in which they exist, nearly anyone will do in a pinch.

Although both Nightingale and McCool are sexually consumed, however, neither can be said to be, like the Roman God they bow to, generative. And their lovemaking ends, generally, in disgust.

Indeed it is a disgusting world in which they live. McCool excuses his most recent heroin episode on his knowledge that his boss has turned his dogs upon the bar's "Champagne girl," the lead stripper, when she threatened to leave him. The dogs literally "ate" her, he reports—reminding us somewhat of the dreadful fate of Sebastian Venerable in Suddenly Last Summer. Indeed all of the figures of this play are, in one way or another, being eaten up, consumed. Jane, it turns out, has a serious blood disease and will soon die. By play's end Nightingale is so sick, symbolized the loss of his erect penis, that he is taken away to a public institution to die. McCool, we recognize, is so caught up in a world of crime and drugs that it can't be long before that he too "will go to Spain," as the underworld figures describe their colleague's sudden disappearance.

Beginning his tenure as a true innocent, The Writer has quickly gotten involved with Mrs. Wire's attempts to open a restaurant in her room, and is forced to testify that she is innocent (even though he has seen her do it) in trying to burn the photographer living below her with hot water. After an operation for a cataract of the eye, he can, symbolically speaking, no longer see the truth. By the second act of this work The Writer has become one with the destroyed beings who surround him, attempting to attack the drunek McCool and raping Nightingale.

For a few moments it seems like The Writer may escape this nightmarish society, as he meets a young man, Sky, who, about to head West for a new life, asks him to join in the voyage. But we soon discover that it is impossible. Just as Nightingale and McCool have been steoroetyped by their erect members, so is The Writer tied to his headphones, keyboard, and video screen as he attempts to tell his story as quickly as it is being told to him, or, as he tells the story to its characters as quickly as they might enact it. There is little difference; either way, we see that he is clearly frozen in space; Sky does not show up to save him from himself. At play's end, The Writer is strangely at peace with the silence surrounding the disappearance of the others with whom he has shared his life or created.

In short, The Writer, it appears, is now as corrupt and uncaring as the people he met when he first arrived in Vieux Carré, and in the process has been swept up into the evil world of his own imagination. Certainly the man we see now welcoming the quietude is the polar opposite of the boy at the beginning of the play crying out of loneliness in his room.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Douglas Messerli "My Broadway Hit"


Edward G. Marshall and Jerome Lawrence at
Barnes & Noble the day after my celebration for Jerry
Photograph (c)2010 by Douglas Messerli


Angela Lansbury in Dear World

My Broadway Hit
by Douglas Messerli

In 1969 I bought a ticket to a preview performance of the Broadway musical Dear World. This musical, based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, was written by the Broadway veteran libretto and playwrighting-team Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The music was by Jerry Herman, and, like Mame, Herman’s musical based on their Auntie Mame, starred Angela Lansbury; the supporting cast included Jane Connell and Milo O’Shea. Despite my empty bank account (indeed I had no bank account in New York), I had saved up just enough to purchase this ticket, and I was excited about the prospect of seeing what promised to be another Broadway hit!

As I left the lobby of the Mark Hellinger Theatre and walked a half block to Broadway I reached into my pocket to examine my newly acquired treasure. But the pocket was empty. I tried another, felt in my back pocket, jammed my hands quickly into the deeper pockets of my overcoat. No ticket! How could I have lost it in a journey of a half block? I had, after all, held the ticket in my hands in the theater lobby. Where had I put it? Had it fallen out of my pocket? I retraced my steps without finding it, returning home — I was now living in a Columbia University apartment on 111th Street almost facing the Cathedral of St. John the Divine spiritually depressed.

It was mid-December and I’d bought this ticket as a kind of Christmas gift to myself. Now with the holiday quickly approaching, I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. For some inexplicable reason, I dressed (shabbily I am certain) for the theater on the evening for which I’d purchased the ticket and arrived at the theater just as the crowd moved forward to find its seats. I moved with it, stopping to speak confidentially to one of the ticket-takers. “Honey, you see that woman over there. Go talk to her,” the ticket-taker said. I went over to the woman she pointed out—her name apparently being Dorothy, since that was what her blouse announced—and abashedly tried to explain my presence: “I’m sorry to bother you, and I wouldn’t be bothering you, but I bought a ticket for this performance and lost it. Is there anything I can do? I’m telling you the truth.”

“Of course you are, honey. I believe you. Come with me,” she said, taking my arm and leading me up into the balcony. “Here’s a good seat,” she gestured to a location that was probably in a much better location than the one for which I had originally paid.

“Thank you,” I called out as she turned to back to the lobby. “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, the musical was not very good — was certainly not a “hit.” The work was far too intimate to survive the canyons of the Hellinger theater, and the sets by the acclaimed Oliver Smith seemed to be located in some grand palace rather than the supposedly dilapidated home of the Countess Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot. Jerry Lawrence later admitted to me that Joe Layton, the director, and Jerry Herman had insisted upon the larger-than-life production. But it wasn’t the kind of musical, with its dark expressionist elements, that could sustain the brassy theatricalism of Herman’s more populist work.

In any event, I did get to see my play. Don’t let anyone ever tell you New Yorkers are always rude and inconsiderate!

But this story is not meant to portray another of my coincidence-haunted New York nights. I suspect the kindness shown me was not the first or only example of Dorothy’s empathy for her patrons. I mention this event only as prelude to an evening that truly was a Broadway — my Broadway—hit, even though it didn’t occur in a regulation theater.

In 1992 I hosted a book party in celebrating the publication of a novel by William Fadiman. Fadiman was a salty Hollywood figure — he’d been Dore Schary’s assistant at MGM studios when Schary was chief of production and, later, president of that studio. Several Hollywood celebrities, accordingly, were in attendance, as well as William’s more-famous brother, Clifton, who after a long stint on NBC’s “Information Please,” had been the senior judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, later editor in chief for the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and The New Yorker book editor. It was there I met Jerome Lawrence.

Throughout my childhood, I had admired the Lawrence and Lee team. Auntie Mame—along with Rosalind Russell, who will always be Mame to me—was one of my very favorite characters of the stage and movies and Inherit the Wind was among the American plays I most treasured. My companion Howard and I’d also seen their The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (not one of my favorites) in an Arena Stage production in Washington, D.C. Jerry and I quickly became friends,and few weeks later I visited him at his legendary Malibu home filled with theater memorabilia—a grandly modern house that tragically burned to the ground during the canyon fires of 1993 shortly after the events I am about to describe.

We spoke of the possibility of my reprinting some of Jerry’s and Robert E. Lee’s plays. But first—there was often a carrot attached to my friendships with elderly men—might I take a look at a novel he had just completed? The book, A Golden Circle—a novel about theater based on several of the figures he’d known—was not a particularly brilliant novel, and was certainly not the kind of fiction Sun & Moon Press generally published. Yet it was an enjoyable read, a gentle and loving tribute that might attract any slightly sentimentally inclined lover of the theater. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to publish it.

The book appeared in early 1993, and I determined to promote it later that year with a party at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. We settled on a night in May, when Jerry’s friends would be in town, he suggested, to see plays before voting for the Tony Awards. He handed me a long list of invitees, to whom my assistant Diana Daves and I mailed out formal invitations. It included nearly everyone of theater fame!

For my visit, I took the Thurber suite in the hotel. We’d rented the Oak Room, and Jerry had quietly planned the performances. I had ordered hors d’oeuvres and liquor (a full bar), arranged for a photographer, and planned on serving as Master of Ceremonies and general host.

After a few nervous rehearsals—singer Michael Feinstein does not like mornings—we were ready for the evening event. Among the attendees were caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and his wife; restaurateur Vincent Sardi; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas; poet Charles Bernstein with his artist wife, Susan Bee; lyricists and composers John Kander, Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock, and E. Y. Harburg; actors Michael York, Marian Seldes and Jan Handzlik (the original Patrick Dennis in the Broadway production of Auntie Mame); playwrights Robert Anderson and younger dramatists I’d invited such as Mac Wellman, John Steppling (coincidentally stopping in New York on his way back to Los Angeles), Len Jenkin, Jeffrey Jones, and numerous famous figures.

Pianist/singer Bobby Short begin the performance part of the evening during the cocktail hour, and when the guests were soon after seated, Michael Feinstein took over the piano and sang a song from Dear World. I took up the mike, explaining who I was and how delighted I was to see all my old friends—even though I’d never actually met them. But they were old friends, I explained, from my childhood, a time in which I memorized the Burns-Mantle playbooks, read their plays, and purchased their recordings — even before we’d owned a record player! Now I was overjoyed to meet them in the flesh.

Jerry Herman took over the piano with Michael Feinstein singing a medley of Broadway songs, and before we knew it, E. Y. Harburg had been drafted to sing “Old Devil Moon” from his Finian’s Rainbow (the musical that has reappeared time and again in my life). A reading from Lawrence’s novel by Tony Randall, Jane Alexander, and E. G. Marshall was next on the bill. Paula Robison followed with a flute solo, and Michael Feinstein returned to the piano to sing more songs, several of the audience members joining in.

On the plane to New York, I had sat next to an elegantly dressed woman who talked a great deal about the theater, and on a whim, I had invited her to the affair. As the evening came to a close, she came over to me and whispered into my ear: “This is the best thing on Broadway! I couldn’t have imagined such an evening possible.” Neither could I.

Los Angeles, June 7, 2005

Soon after this New York theatrical event, we had a smaller west coast celebration for Jerry’s book at Books & Company in Malibu. At this affair, actors Martha Scott and Burgess Meredith, along with Jerry and his young “secretary” Will, read passages from the book. In the audience Carol Channing sat throughout the performance with her purse perched atop her head, evidently for protection from the afternoon sun. I’d long before witnessed her performances of Hello, Dolly! in two different cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

New York, May 5, 2006

Djuna Barnes | THREE FROM THE EARTH


THREE FROM THE EARTH
by Djuna Barnes

first published in Little Review, VI (November 1919)

Three from the Earth was first presented at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, October 31, 1919, with the following cast:

JOHN CARSON Ward Roege
JAMES CARSON James Light
HENRY CARSON Cesare Zwaska
KATE MORLEY Ida Rauh

Setting by James Light.

Persons:
JAMES, HENRY and JOHN, CARSON brothers
KATE MORLEY, an adventuress, a lady of leisure
Time:
Late afternoon.
Place:
KATE MORLEYS boudoir. A long narrow room, with a great many lacquer screens in various shades of blue, a tastefully decorated room though rather extreme.

At the rise of the curtain the three Carson brothers are discovered sitting together on a couch to the left. They look like peasants of the most obvious type. They are tall, rather heavy and range in age from nine teen to twenty-five. They have sandy, sun-bleached hair that insists upon sticking straight up—oily, sweaty skins—large hanging lips and small eyes on which a faint whitish down moves for lashes. They are clumsy and ill clothed. Russet shoes are on all six feet. They each wear a purple aster and each has on a tie of the super-stunning variety—they have evidently done their best to be as one might say "well dressed."

When they speak—aside from their grunts—their voices are rough, nasal and occasionally crack. They are stoop-shouldered and their hands are excessively ugly.

Yet in spite of all this, their eyes are intelligent, their smiles gentle, melancholy, compassionate. And though they have a look of formidable grossness and stupidity, there is, on second observation, a something beneath all this in no way in keeping with this first impression.
JOHN, the youngest, and the smallest, looks around the room carefully.

JOHN: A nice room, eh? [He tries to whisper, but it comes forth buzzing and harsh.] JAMES: A woman's room.
HENRY: How?
JAMES: A narrow room, John.
JOHN: Well?
JAMES: Cats and narrow walls.
HENRY: [grunting] Ugh.
JOHN: Hush—I hear her coming! [The curtains part and KATE MORLEY enters. She is a woman of about forty. Handsome. Dark. She is beautifully dressed—in a rather seductive fashion. She has a very interesting head; she has an air of one used to adulation and the pleasure of exerting her will. She has a trick of narrowing her eyes. As she comes forward there is a general commotion among the brothers, but none manages to stand up.]
KATE: Good day, gentlemen.
ALL THREE: Good day.
KATE: Nice of you to call on me. [She seats herself, crossing her legs.] You are the three Carsons, John, James and Henry, aren't you? I haven't seen you for years, yet I think I should have known you.
ALL THREE: Ah ha.
KATE: Yes, I presume I should have known you. I have a good memory. Well, as I said, it's nice of you to come to see me. Social?
HENRY: You might call it that.
KATE: Its quite nice to get an unexpected visitor or so. I'm the kind of woman who knows just who is going to call on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday—
ALL THREE: Ah ha.
KATE: How's the country?
JOHN: Just the same.
KATE: It always is. Don't you go mad—watching it?
HENRY: Now and again.
KATE: And how's your father? [not pausing for an answer—almost to herself] I remember—he was always mad. He used to wear a green cloth suit, and he carried white rats all over his shoulders, [remembering the three] Ah, yes, your father—he was a barber, wasn't he?
HENRY: No, a chemist.
KATE: [laughing uneasily] I have a bad memory after all. Well, anyway, in those days he had begun to be queer—every one noticed it—even that funny man who had those three flaxen-haired daughters with the thin ankles who lives at the end of the street—And your mother—a prostitute, I believe.
HENRY: [calmly] At times.
KATE: A dancing girl without a clean word in her vocabulary, or a whole shirt to her name
JAMES: But a woman with fancies.
KATE: [sarcastically] And what ability?
HENRY: Oh, none, just a burning desire.
KATE: What's the use of going into that? How did you get here—what for?
ALL THREE: On bicycles.
KATE: [bursting into laughter] How exactly ridiculous and appropriate—and what else?
JOHN: To see how the sun falls in a place like this.
KATE: [angrily, rising] Well, you see, from left to right, and right to left—
HENRY: True.
JOHN: [quietly] And we wanted to see how you walked, and sat down, and crossed your legs—
HENRY: And to get fathers letters.
KATE: Well, you see how I walk, sit down, cross my legs. What letters?
JAMES: Letters to you.
KATE: [uneasily] So you know about that—well, and what would you fellows do with them—read them to see how clever they are?
JAMES: No, we have the clever ones.
KATE: Mine?
JOHN and
HENRY: [nodding] Exactly
KATE: Oh!
JOHN: You suffer?
KATE: From time to time—there's always a reaction.
HENRY: That's vulgar, isn't it?
KATE: Not unusually.
JOHN: The letters?
KATE: [to herself] Well, there is malice in me—what of it? We've all been a while with the dogs, we don't all learn to bark.
JOHN: Ah ha.
KATE: See here, what will you do with your father's letters?
HENRY: Destroy them, perhaps.
KATE: And if I give them to you—will your father be as generous with mine?
HENRY: Father is undoubtedly a gentleman—even at this moment.
KATE: Well, we shall see about that—first tell me how you live.
JOHN: We go down on the earth and find things, tear them up, shaking the dirt off. [making motions to illustrate] Then there are the cows to be milked, the horses—a few—to be fed, shod and curried—do you wish me to continue?
KATE: Yes, yes, go on.
HENRY: [taking the tale up] We get up at dawn, and our father turns over in bed and whispers: "If you meet any one, say nothing; if you are asked a question, look stupid—"
KATE: I believe you.
JAMES: And he says: "Go about your work as if you had neither sight, speech nor hearing—
KATE: Yes—
JOHN: And he adds: "If you should meet a woman in the road—"
KATE: [excited] Then what?
HENRY: That's enough. Then of a Sunday we watch the people going to church, when we hear the "Amen," we lift a little and sit back—and then again—
KATE: Religion?
HENRY: Enough for our simple needs.
KATE: Poor sheep!
JAMES: Wise sheep!
KATE: What! Well perhaps. No one is any longer sure of anything. Then what?
JOHN: When we come home he says: "What have you seen and heard today?" He never asks, "What have you said?"
KATE: He trusts you?
JOHN: Undoubtedly. Sometimes we say, "We saw a hawk flying," or, "A badger passed," and sometimes we bring him the best treat of all—
KATE: Well?
JOHN: Something dead.
KATE: Dead?
HENRY: Anything that has destroyed the crops—a mole—a field-mouse.
KATE: And never anything that's harmless?
JOHN: Never
KATE: Well, see here. I'll give you those letters. Suddenly my heart says to me, "Kate, give the oxen the rope, they won't run away."—Isn't it so? Very well, I put my hand on a certain package and all is over—I'm about to be married, you know. [She has risen and gone over to a little box standing on the desk. Out from this she takes a package of letters tied with a red ribbon. She turns and walks straight up to JOHN.] I'll give them to you. You are the youngest, the gentlest, and you have the nicest hands. [She sits down, breathing with difficulty.]
JOHN: [putting them into his blouse] Thank you, Kate Morley.
KATE: Now, tell me about everything. How is that mother of yours? I remember her—she was on the stage—she danced as they say, and she sang. She had a pet monkey—fed it honey out of a jar kept full by her admirers: grooms, stage hands, what not—
HENRY: Yes, and she used to draw pictures of it in the style of Dürer—almost morbid—and later it caught a disease and died—
KATE: I don't doubt it—and she, she had an under-lip like a balloon—and your father kissed that mouth, was even tempted—
JAMES: My father often saw beyond the flesh.
KATE: Kissed such a creature!
HENRY: At such times she was beautiful.
KATE: [with a touch of humility] Yes, I'm sorry—I remember. Once I passed her, and instead of saying something, something horrible—she might—she looked down.
JOHN: She was beautiful, looking down.
KATE: [angry] And I, I suppose I wasn't beautiful to look at—
HENRY: No, I suppose not, that is, not for her.
KATE: [viciously] Well, let me tell you, you haven't inherited her beauty. Look at your hands—thick, hard, ugly—and the life lines in them like the life lines in the hands of every laborer digging sewers—
JOHN: There's something in that, but they are just beginning.
KATE: [turning on them] Look at you! You're ugly, and clumsy, and uncouth. You grunt and roar, you wear abominable clothes—and you have no manners—and all because of your father, your mighty righteous and original father. You don't have to be like this. You needn't have little pigs' eyes with bleached lashes, and thick hanging lips—and noses—but I suppose you've got adenoids, and you may suffer from the fact that your mother had a rupture, and in all probability you have the beginning of ulcers of the stomach, for God knows your father couldn't keep a meal down like a gentleman!
HENRY: He was delicate.
KATE: And why was he delicate? He called himself "The little Father," as one might say, "The great Emperor." Well, to have a father to whom you can go and say, "All is not as it should be"—that would have been everything. But what could you say to him, and what had he to say to you? Oh, we all have our pathetic moments of being at our best, but he wasn't satisfied with that, he wanted to be at it all the time. And the result, the life of a mole. "Listen and say nothing." Then he becomes the gentleman farmer because he discovers he cannot be the Beloved Fool. Suddenly he is the father of three creatures for all the world like Russian peasants—without an idea, a subtlety—its wicked, that's all, wicked—and as for that, how do you know but that all three of you had a different mother? Why, great God, I might be the mother of one of you!
JOHN: [significantly] So I believe, madam.
KATE: [unheeding] Do you think a man like your father had any right to bring such children as you into the world—three columns of flesh without one of the five senses! [She suddenly buries her head in her hands.]
JOHN: [gently] You loved our father.
HENRY: And you also had your pot of honey—
KATE: Thank God I had no ideals—I had a religion.
JOHN: Just what?
KATE: You wouldn't understand.
HENRY: Shoes to the needy?
KATE: No, I'm not that kind, vicious boy.
JOHN: Are you quite certain?
KATE: I'll admit all my candles are not burning for God. Well, then, blow them out, still I'll have a light burning somewhere, for all your great breaths, you oxen!
HENRY: You were never a tower builded of ivory—
KATE: You're too stupid to be bitter—your voices are too undeveloped—you'd say "love" and "hate" the same way.
JAMES: True, we have been shut away from intonations.
KATE: You wouldn't even wish to die.
JOHN: We shall learn.
KATE: Why bother?
JOHN: [abruptly rising] You have posed for the madonna?
KATE: Every woman has.
JOHN: You have done it better than most.
KATE: What do you mean?
JOHN: I looked at it when I came in. [He picks up the photograph.]
KATE: Let it be—I was playing in the "Crown of Thorns," an amateur theatrical.
JOHN: Yes, I presumed it was amateur—
JAMES: You were a devoted mother?
KATE: I have no virtues.
HENRY: And vices?
KATE: Weak in one, weak in the other.
JOHN: However, the baby had nice hands—
KATE: [looking at him] That is true.
JAMES: But then babies only use their hands to lift the breast, and occasionally to stroke the cheek—
KATE: Or throw them up in despair—not a heavy career.
JOHN: And then?
KATE: [in an entirely new tone] Won't you have tea?—But no, pay no attention to me, that's another of my nasty malicious tricks. Curse life!
HENRY: Your life is drawing to a close.
JAMES: And from time to time you place your finger on a line of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, wondering: "How did he say it all in two lines?" Eh?
KATE: As you say. [She looks at them slowly, one by one.] You are strange things, [coming back] But at least I've given up something—look at your mother, what did she give up for your father—a drunken husband—
JAMES: A drunken lover—that's different.
KATE: I can't help thinking of that great gross stomach of hers.
JAMES: Gross indeed, it won't trouble him any more.
KATE: What's that?
JOHN: He cut his throat with a knife—
KATE: Oh, my God! [pause] How did he look?
JOHN: You can't satisfy your aesthetic sense that way-he looked—well, ugly, played out; yes, played out. Everything had been too much for him—you—us—you could see that in the way he— KATE: [in a whisper] Well, that's strange—everything seems—I knew him, you know. [She begins to laugh.] And the dogs barked?
JAMES: So I believe.
KATE: [dazed] And you, what are you three going to do?
HENRY: We are coming out of the country—we are going abroad—we can listen there.
KATE: Abroad—listen—what are you saying?
HENRY: There are great men abroad.
JAMES: Anatole France, De Gourmont—
KATE: De Gourmont is dead.
JOHN: There will be others.
KATE: [still dully] And how did you come to know such names—oh, your father, of course—
JOHN: We needed them.
KATE: Strange, I've been prepared for every hour but this—
JAMES: Yet I dare say you've never cried out.
KATE: You are mistaken. I've cried: "To the evil of mind all is evil—"
HENRY: Ah ha, and what happened?
KATE: Sometimes I found myself on my knees—
JAMES: And sometimes?
KATE: That's enough, haven't we about cleared all the shavings out of the carpenter shop?
HENRY: You at least will never kill yourself.
KATE: Not likely, I'll probably die in bed with my slippers on—you see, I have a pretty foot.
HENRY: We understand—you are about to be married.
KATE: To a supreme court judge—so I'm cleaning house.
JOHN: [standing with the photograph] But it won't be quite cleared out until this goes. [He takes it out of the frame and turning it over reads.] "Little John, God bless him." [He turns it back.] God bless him. Well, just for that I'd like to keep it.
KATE: That's my affair.
JOHN: Sol see. [He puts the photo in his blouse with the letters.]
KATE: Well, perhaps—well, you're not so stupid after all—Come, for the madonna give me back the letters—I'll burn them, I swear, and you can put the madonna at the foot of the bed.
JOHN: I shan't put it at the foot of the bed—I don't look at the foot of the bed—
HENRY and JAMES: [rising] And now we shall go.
KATE: [her hands to her head] But, gentlemen, gentlemen—
HENRY: We won't need to bother you again. We are leaving the country and going elsewhere—and there was only one of us to whom you might have shown a little generosity—in other words we do not wish to be reminded, and now we can forget, and in time become quite hilarious—
KATE: But, gentlemen, gentlemen, not this way—
JOHN: Well? [Quite suddenly he takes her in his arms, raises her face and kisses her on the mouth.]
KATE: [crying out] Not that way! Not that way!
JAMES: That's the way you bore him!

[The curtain drops behind them.]

Copyright (c) 1995 by Sun & Moon Press. Reprinted from At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays of Djuna Barnes (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Dead Languages"




DEAD LANGUAGES
by Douglas Messerli

Julia Cho The Language Archive / Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre / the performance I saw was on November 14, 2010

Presumably anyone interested in theater is equally interested in theater's major medium, language. That does not presume, of course, an interest in "dead languages," the focus of the major character of Cho's play, George (Matt Letscher), who is a linguist-scholar devoted to archiving dying languages before they disappear—at the rate of every two weeks, if we can believe George. Beyond that, however, any playwright must ask, as does Cho, if those numerous
dying languages might also be send to include our personal daily expressions.

At the moment George is attending to the last living speakers of Elloway, who he has brought, at great expense, from some vaguely middle European country. The major problem he discovers with this language is that the couple, who bicker only in English—Elloway is far too lovely a language to use for anger and argumentation, they claim—refuse to help with George's work. Resten (John Horton) and Alta (the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell) see no point to sharing their vocabulary: "Our world is already gone, and no amount of talk talk talk will ever bring back" what has been lost.

Nicely (and perhaps a little predictably) paralleling this predicament, is George's own relationship with his wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), who is close to giving up on the idea that George, so brilliant with languages, might ever learn the language of love. She denies leaving all the cryptic messages that George finds hidden in his books, shoes, pants, etc: "Love or explaining how to use the remote control?" "Marriage or an old cardigan?" etc. Yet her denial reveals her inability to express her own private language of frustration, suggesting that she is as incapable of saving her world as are Resten, Alta, and George.

The playwright, Cho, has slightly seasoned her brew with the introduction of George's assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), who clearly has an inexpressible crush on her boss, going so far as to study Esperanto, one of his favorite languages, just to please him. She cannot seem to learn the language however, perhaps because, as her teach explains, she is using it for the wrong purpose. The teacher (played also by Houdyshell) explains that she too had a crush on another, a Dutch woman, which resulted in a similar problem: she could not properly express herself, and the woman left. In short, nearly all of the characters in The Language Archive can speak brilliantly when it comes to mundane or irritating situations, but have little skill, like most of us, with the language of the doves.

By the middle of the play, Mary decides to leave George, Emma determines that she will tell George of her love for him, and the strangely dressed speakers of Elloway decamp for a plane home—all leaving the linguist utterly confounded. What has happened to his well-ordered world?

Cho does not have an easy answer; nor does she offer solutions for any of her figures. Resten and Alma fall back in love, but leave their beautiful language to fall into oblivion. George becomes determined to tell Mary that he loves her, but, after she has magically met up with a former-baker who has provided her with the perfect mother dough, she has opened her own small bakery, discovering a joyful new purpose to her life. Emma attempts to escape George as well; she, in an ever more miraculous encounter, meets up with the long dead creator of Esperanto, the Russian ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, who examines her eyes, clouded by her love; she returns to Geroge, now recognizing what Mary has previously told the audience:

Sometimes you feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness. And
you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.

Despite Mary's permanent absence, Emma never does develop a loving relationship with George, who continues to work alone, lost in the syntax of other people's lives.

Cho's play points to deeper concepts than it serves up. And the author has somewhat disappointedly spiced it up with whimsy—what some critics (mistakenly I believe) described as surreal or absurdist farce—that deflects the philosophical and psychological implications of her art. The Language Archive remains, for all that, a strong parable of what lovers—and by extension, committed believers of life—can and cannot fully express.

New York, November 15, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli "The Gang's Still Here"


Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence, 1983

THE GANG’S STILL HERE
by Douglas Messerli

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here / New York, the Ambassador Theater, October 1, 1959
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here (Cleveland: The World Publishing
Company, 1960)

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s The Gang’s All Here (1959) is a play loosely based on the presidency of Warren G. Harding, remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal involving several of his friends and cabinet members.

Like Harding, Lawrence’s and Lee’s Ohio senator Griffith T. Hastings, name comes forth in the smoke-filled rooms of the Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel as an alternative to candidates (in 1920, General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden) who have Republican Party members deadlocked. Engineered by Walter Rafferty and other cronies in Lawrence and Lee’s play (in 1920 by Harry M. Daugherty) Hastings is elected and fills his major governmental posts with his “Ohio gang.”

In the play Hastings is presented as a man modest enough to admit to his limited capabilities and honest enough to claim that he is not up to the position; but through the intervention of his friends and strong-willed wife (who Hastings and others describe as “The Duchess,” Hastings, despite his misgivings, determines to run.

Once he is locked away within the presidential quarters, however, he hasn’t a clue how to begin governing, hiring on the spur of a moment a man employed to oversee his transition, and demanding the immediate presence of his cronies, who quickly fill his ears with speedy decisions concerning the issues with which he is now forced to grapple. In only a few weeks after becoming President, we see him sneaking away from the White House to play poker with his cronies—now all political advisors—and ready to sign on nearly any dotted line put before him.

Strangely, the only honest man surrounding him is Bruce Bellingham, the interim assistant he has hired. Bruce, along with Hastings’s wife, Frances, attempts to warn him away from his gang—his own Attorney General, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Interior, and Head of the Veterans Bureau. By this time, however, Hastings has become so dependent upon their advice that he has no one else to whom he can turn and fires Bellingham, the only one willing to tell him the truth.

As the Hearn committee begins investigations, it becomes clear that Hastings must act; as he attempts to query the honesty of members of his own cabinet and staff, Rafferty reminds him that he has knowledge of Hastings’ sexual affairs which he’s willing to reveal. Rafferty’s moral jingoism, his long justification for his immorality, reminds one of Harry Lime’s argument with his friend Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man of ten years earlier:

He [Sam Cavendish] can afford morality. He’s rich enough. I’m not. Neither are you. The “land of plenty” for everybody except a politician, who sticks his head through the hole in the canvas and lets the goddamned free press sling mud balls at him. He can’t run his business like a business, because it’s never his business. It belongs to the blessed American public that doesn’t give a hoot in hell until some poor bastard gets his pinky caught in the cash register! Name me the job that demands more and pays less than serving the American taxpayer. The Customers’ Man can screw ‘em blind on the Big Board. That’s O.K. The Oil Boys can simmer the fat out of the ground, the Real Estate Sharks can bank a six-month million—everybody gets rich except the poor ass of a “Public Servant.” (Straight at Hastings) And you’ve got the gall to scream because a few of your friends are smart enough to do exactly what everybody else in the country is doing.

In the context of Rafferty’s argument, the actual president Harding’s campaign slogan—“Return to Normalcy”—seems bizarrely appropriate.

With the news of Ax Maley’s suicide (head of Hastings’ Veterans Bureau), Hastings must face his own political and real death as well. In Harding’s administration it was an assistant to Daughtery who committed suicide, while Fall, Miller, and, Forbes were convicted of fraud and bribery. In the Lawrence and Lee play, all other consequences remain in the future.

Harding clearly knew his presidency had been destroyed by the scandal, and in 1923 set out across the country to boost his own ratings on what he described as a “Voyage of Understanding.” Understanding for whom, one might ask: the electorate or himself? In Lawrence and Lee’s version it is Hastings who comes to the “understanding,” ultimately seeking the resignation of Rafferty before drinking a deadly medicinal concoction left behind in his Surgeon General’s bag. Harding’s illness was simply attributed to food poisoning—and his death soon after to a heart attack. At least Hastings dies with some recognition, with some sense of dignity.

The published volume of The Gang’s All Here begins with a short piece by the playwrights published in the New York Herald Tribune of September 27, 1959, warning the public to take the lessons of their play to heart in the upcoming elections. That election between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy was even more fateful in several respects than the 1920 race between Harding and the Democratic nominee James A. Cox. One candidate of the 1960 race clearly was a man (particularly in his later administration) with a notorious gang—the other a man with a notorious family.

Lawrence and Lee’s work functions as a terribly old-fashioned drama, and creaks in its historical underpinnings. Given that the 1960 election, for the first time, depended heavily upon television news coverage as opposed to the simple workings of backroom politics, the play seems particularly old-fashioned. With a cast that included E. G. Marshall, Howard Smith, Melvyn Douglas, and Jean Dixon the stage theatrics must have been almost magical; but reading it in 2003, the dramatic action seems to be missing.

What struck me most, however, as I read this play was that in terms of politics little has changed. The gang is still with us. President Bush won the 2000 election, in fact, by machinations that Rafferty and company could not even have imagined. The three R’s with which Bush and Cheney now control our country—Rove, Rumsfield and Rice—far more than those basic areas of learning, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic—serve the President as a gang whose personal agendas far surpass those of Harding/Hastings’s petty greed. Lawrence and Lee ask a naïve question, but one that should not be glibly answered by Americans today:

If the man we fondly X’d in a voting booth turns out to be
a struggling incompetent, whose fault is it? The President’s?
….It’s too easy to blame the gang around him, because oppor-
tunists are always waiting to fill any governmental vacuum.
Perhaps the real trouble lies in our own reluctance to think
about history except on that November Tuesday.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2003

In the front of my copy of this play, I discovered, while writing this piece, the signature of cast member E. G. Marshall, which reminded me of my brief encounter with him in 1993, when I must have asked him to sign the book (purchased, if I recall, at Strand Bookstore). Marshall had long been one of my favorite actors from childhood: I had seen him in episodes of You Are There on television in the 1950s, “The Death of Socrates” (1953) and “Washington’s Farewell to His Officers” (1955), on the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Little Foxes (1956), in the movie Twelve Angry Men (1957), and, most memorably, as the defense lawyer Lawrence Preston in the television series The Defenders, one of my favorites of 1960s television fare.

Some might recall that he also appeared in numerous Broadway productions, including the original production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), and the short-lived Broadway premiere, with Bert Lahr, of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1956).

A long-time friend of Jerome Lawrence’s, Marshall read from Jerry’s novel A Golden Circle with Tony Randall, Jane Alexander, and Jerry himself at my Algonquin evening (described in My Year: 2005); but he also joined Jerry and me the next day as we taxied over to a Barnes & Noble bookstore on the West Side for another reading of Jerry’s novel. I recall little of our conversations during these encounters, but I remember him as being brisk but friendly. He died five years later, in August 1998.

Monday, December 6, 2010

David Greenspan | SON OF AN ENGINEER


SON OF AN ENGINEER
by David Greenspan


The Earth is Destroyed by Missiles

Son of an Engineer makes phenomenal scenic demands. This is how I saw it as I wrote it, episodic, moving unencumbered through the house, room after room, each room discarded one after the other, all of it traveling and neatly disappearing. Then Mars, its single setting displaced for the encounter at the grave site, then restored.

I first performed the play solo. I sat in a chair, played all the parts and recited the stage directions. I changed my voice for each character, and confined my movements to hand gestures and turns of my head, altering my focus to indicate characters speaking to one another. The only sound effect was a recording of the nuns singing in Act Two. Everything moved as I had written it, quickly, neatly, episodically.

But I had written the play to be performed by actors. When I staged Son of an Engineer at HOME for Contemporary Theater and Art, I had neither technical nor financial means to realize the spectacle. Nor had I the interest. Instead, I chose to delete anything that wasn't actually "used." Act One was a bare stage, articulated by an upstage curtain. Props and small set pieces were brought on as needed. There was no house facade—the actor playing Tom stood center and pretended to open the front door. A bar with a radio was rolled on for the living room; the kitchen was a small island of linoleum. The phone booth was a receiver and a circular florescent; the dining room, four chairs and a light fixture; the cellar, a hospital bed and a light bulb; the bedroom, a bed. A miniature rocket ship was the only scenery in the backyard; the actors stepped behind it, and exited the stage before it was "flown" for the blast-off. There was no bathroom window—the actor playing The Killian Boy took his position at the top of the scene, and light changed as he began his conversation with Seymour. A reddish carpet was rolled on during intermission, a tent placed up left, and a larger version of the rocket down right. The curtain opened to reveal the Martian landscape—cut-out mountains. The heavens were Christmas lights behind a black scrim. The minimal scenery was complemented throughout by the sound effects indicated in the text.

It didn't work. I could not realize the unencumbered flow of events, nor the suddenness and absurdity of each consequent episode. Reciting the stage directions had permitted me opportunity to create in words, worlds and environments and then, in words, erase them. It was neat. It was like a radio play without radio, a puppet play without puppets. The restricted visualization I employed in production was inadequate compensation for loss of the stage directions. "Flying" the miniature rocket to the accompanying sound effect of nuclear holocaust was never as potent, shocking, or absurd as my simply saying:

The rocket ship blasts off. The Earth is destroyed by missiles.

Likewise, some visual elements were too potent, too shocking. The nudity (and in particular, the graphic sexual behavior during Act Two) completely overpowered the text. In addition, the actor playing Tom was hampered by the inexpressive mask of the bear costume. Intended acts of agony and epiphany were reduced to mere psychic and physical violence.

Several months after the production at HOME, I again performed the play as a solo. Restoring the stage directions and deleting the visual elements afforded the audience some distance from the acts of horror, and access to the play's pathos. Perhaps directors more skilled than I, or with access to stage machinery (or both), might realize the play in production. I could not. I do hope, however, the play is rewarding to read.

-David Greenspan


SON OF AN ENGINEER

Son of an Engineer, produced by HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, premiered at Here Theatre in New York on January 12, 1994, with the following cast:

Chuck Coggins
Karin Levitas
Thomas Pasley
Lisa Welti

Directed by David Greenspan; Sound Design: Edward Kosla; Costume Design: Mary Meyers; Light Design: John Lewis; Set Design: Alan Glovsky; Stage Manager: James Kroll


Characters:
TOM
PHOEBE
THE KILLIAN BOY
DIANE
THE KILLIAN BOY'S MOTHER

Setting:
Act 1, Suburbia.
Act 2, Mars.

Note:
This can be played by four. An actress doubles as DIANE and THE KILLIAN BOY'S MOTHER. See author's note.


ACT ONE

Ding dong. Light illuminates the front door of a nice suburban home. Clean. Flagstone path leads to two flagstone steps up to the door. Through the picture window—drapes drawn—the interior of the house can be, at best, vaguely detected. When the facade travels, the inside will be revealed. Standing at the front door is THE KILLIAN BOY. Early to mid-thirties, handsome, but not pretty, soft, but not fey. He is dressed simply—white tee shirt, pants, sturdy black shoes. He holds a windbreaker in one hand, a backpack droops from one shoulder. The front door opens—TOM is there. TOM is a large bear—like you see in the woods—ursidae carnivora. In one hand he holds his reading glasses and newspaper. Nice dad kind of head of the household pleasant.

TOM
Yes? Can I help you?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Ummm…I don't know. Who are you?

From within the house, a woman's voice—PHOEBE. Pleasant, strained.

PHOEBE
Who is it, Tom?

TOM
Some young man.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Is this the Killian residence?

TOM
It was.

PHOEBE
If he's selling something, just tell him to go away.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[To TOM.] What?

TOM
They've moved on.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I see.

PHOEBE appears at the door beside TOM. She's human, dresses attractively, and wears a pretty apron. Svelte. She holds a cooking fork and a dish towel. Busy day running errands. Been to the beauty parlor. Housewife. Pleasant.

PHOEBE
[To TOM.] What's going on? [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Hello.

TOM
He's looking for the Killians.

PHOEBE
[To TOM.] Oh. [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] They don't live here anymore.

TOM
Did you know them?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yeah, I'm their son.

PHOEBE
Oh. [To TOM.] My goodness.

TOM
They didn't mention to you they were moving on?

THE KILLIAN BOY
No, they didn't.

TOM
When did you last speak with them?

THE KILLIAN BOY
About two weeks ago. They didn't leave a number or anything, did they?

TOM
I'm afraid not, son. Phone rings offstage.

PHOEBE
Excuse me.

PHOEBE disappears into the house.

THE KILLIAN BOY
My apartment was broken into the other day.

Offstage, phone is picked up.

PHOEBE
Hello? Hi Jenny, how's he doing?

THE KILLIAN BOY
All my identification was stolen.

PHOEBE
Un huh.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I lost everything.

PHOEBE
Oh good, I'm glad to hear that. I'll tell Tom.

TOM
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Excuse me. [Calling into the house.] Is that Jenny? How's Frank?

PHOEBE
Wait, Tom.

TOM
Is that Jenny?

PHOEBE

TOM—wait!

THE KILLIAN BOY
[To himself.] I can't believe this. I grew up in this house. This is the house I grew up in.

TOM
A friend of ours was in surgery this afternoon. Good friend. [Pause.] You should have called in advance. You would have known your folks moved on.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I know.

I guess so.

PHOEBE
OK, I'll call you later. What time will you get home. I'll call you then. I'm so happy he's doing well. We're very relieved. We were worried.

TOM
[To himself.] Deep inside you. What do you see? Dark spots.

PHOEBE reappears.

PHOEBE
It was Jenny.

TOM
That's what I thought.


PHOEBE
And he's fine. He's resting comfortably. Jenny's going to stay with him until nine, then she's going to go home. She's tired. I'll call her about ten.

TOM
You should have told her to stop by—we could have saved dinner for her.

PHOEBE
That's what I should have done. I'm going to call her back.

TOM
Can you reach her?

PHOEBE
I'll call the nurse's station. I can get the number.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Well, thanks for your help.

TOM
Where do you go from here?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I don't know.

TOM
Maybe you should come in the house.

Silence. Uh oh.

THE KILLIAN BOY
There's no reason for that.

PHOEBE
I'll call the nurse's station. I can get the number.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Well, thanks for your help.

TOM
Where do you go from here?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I don't know.

TOM
Maybe you should come in the house.

Silence. Uh oh.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I think I better be going.

TOM
You might find it interesting. See how it's changed inside.

PHOEBE

TOM, please, he's gotta find his family.

Tom, please, he's gotta locate his family.

Got to. Besides, Diane's not feeling well. A boy in the house. I don't know.

TOM
Diane's our daughter.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I feel so lost.

PHOEBE
Besides, Diane's not feeling well. A boy in the house. I don't know.

TOM
Diane's our daughter.

THE KILLIAN BOY
No, I'm gonna hit the road.

TOM
Diane's our daughter.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I feel so lost.

TOM
Then come on in.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I couldn't impose like this.

PHOEBE
I'm going to make my phone call. Tom, I think you're being a little...Well...

PHOEBE disappears into the house. Silence. OK.

TOM
You don't have to come in. Don't feel obligated or under any pressure.

You don't have to come in. Don't feel obligated or under any pressure. I just thought—

THE KILLIAN BOY
I better hit the road.

TOM
[To himself.] What then? What rest? Words without thought. When will we rest?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I better hit the road.

TOM
Well, good luck, son. I hope you find your family.

Good luck, son. I hope you locate your family.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I hope so too.

I do too.

I hope so.

I hope so too.

THE KILLIAN BOY hits the road. TOM watches him leave, then closes the door. Light changes, as the house facade travels.

Light illuminates the living room—the bar area. TOM sets his newspaper down on a bar stool, switches on a small radio that rests on the bar, and mixes himself a martini. From the radio, comes a man's voice.

VOICE FROM THE RADIO
Who is Daniel Greenburg? Where is Daniel Greenburg? Whatever happened to Daniel Green-burg? Daniel Greenburg has a lot of nerve. Daniel Greenburg's family was living in Beverly Hills, then moved into Los Angeles, west of Beverly Hills. Maybe they got a bigger house, I'm not sure. A nice house, sure about that. So then—but then Daniel Greenburg continued to go to school in Beverly Hills—even though he was no longer a resident of the city of Beverly Hills. I don't know how these people pull this off—fake an address or something. Perhaps Daniel didn't want to leave all his good friends at Horace Mann Elementary School in Beverly Hills—or perhaps Daniel didn't want to give up the superior education offered at Horace Mann Elementary School in Beverly Hills. Certain folks, now and again, find some way to get their kids into the Beverly Hills school system—even when they don't live in Beverly Hills.

Now I should note that Daniel Greenburg did not—to the best of my knowledge—attend Beverly Hills High School. He had by then terminated the charade and enrolled in either a Los Angeles City high school or some private institution. Either way—as far as I know—Daniel Greenburg did not attend Beverly Hills High School.

But whatever happened to Daniel Greenburg? I don't know how his life turned out. And what about Daniel Biscar? He was a genius. Whatever happened to Daniel Biscar? He was a student at Hillcrest Elementary School in Los Angeles, but his parents pulled him out—maybe to study in some special school for really smart children. Don't know what happened to him, how his life turned out. And what about Daniel Gunther? He went to Beverly Hills High School, I know that. How did his life turn out? And Danny Silver. Danny Silver was so funny—he was the funniest guy in school, just cracked me up. And he was always getting in trouble and sent to Mr. Hazzerott's office. What in god's name happened to him—how did his life turn out? All these people come and go from our lives and then we don't know what happened to them.

And I'm sure those aren't the only Daniels. There are more! And what about the Alans and the Jans and the Michaels and the Sharons. Shit! And the Christophers—Chris—or no—Cliffs—Cliffs! Cliff* Curry. Whatever happened to Cliff Curry and Christopher Mulrooney—Alan Sperling and Alan Abshez? And the Rons! Ron Silverman, Ron what's his face. What happened to these people? What did they make of their lives? All moved on! Haven't heard from or about these people for twenty—some twenty-five years. Maybe some of them are dead.

Daniel Gunther, Jonathon Prince, Josh Goldstein. Oh, my god!

TOM sips his martini. Light changes, as the living room travels.


Light illuminates the kitchen. Black and white linoleum. A counter, center. Modern. One door leads to the dining room. Another door leads to the living room. PHOEBE is in the kitchen—getting plates, silverware and glassware ready to bring into the dining room. She calls to TOM.

PHOEBE
Honey, dinner's ready.

Immediately, TOM enters.

TOM
Did you call Jenny?

PHOEBE
You know, I didn't—I think she wants to be on her own tonight. She'll get home too late if she stops by here.

TOM
[Sniffs.] Smells good.

PHOEBE
Call Diane. I need some help getting dinner on the table.

TOM
I'll help you.

PHOEBE
No, you go and rest. I want Diane to help me.

TOM
I can help you.

PHOEBE
You've been working all day, darling. [Calling.] Diane, come down and help me set the table.

From off left, above and behind, a girl's voice—DIANE.

DIANE
I'm doing my homework.

PHOEBE
You can do your homework after dinner, sweetheart. I need some help.

TOM
[Munching on something.] Come on down, cookie. Help your mother. You can do your homework after dinner.

PHOEBE
She was watching cartoons when I got home.

DIANE
I have a lot to do.

TOM
Come on down, sweetie.

PHOEBE
[Firmly.] Diane, get down here this minute.

TOM
Don't get your mother angry, lambchop.

PHOEBE
Diane, I'm warning you.

TOM
Come on, baby, come down and help your mother; she's been working hard all day to make us a nice dinner.

PHOEBE
I swear, Tom, I'll beat the living shit out of her if she doesn't come down and help me.

TOM
Did you hear that, honey? You better come down.

PHOEBE
Give me your strap, Tom.

TOM
I'll help you. Let me—

PHOEBE
No, Tom, she has to learn. Give me your belt.

TOM
Pussy, come down before your mother goes upstairs and beats you.

PHOEBE
Don't give her options, Tom. This is where the problem begins.

DIANE
I'll be right down.

TOM
There we go.

PHOEBE
I don't care. Give me your strap.

TOM
Oh, come on, relax, honey.

PHOEBE
I swear, Tom, you give me that belt, or I'm going up there with a spatula.

TOM
[More the authoritarian, playfully.] Hey, come on now.

PHOEBE
Don't come on me. I'm here all day like this. You don't know what it's like all day.

TOM
[His teeth clench, his tone changing, begins play-boxing with PHOEBE—psychosis surfacing.] What are you getting excited for?

PHOEBE
I don't know how much more I can take, Tom.

TOM
What are you talking about?

PHOEBE
All you do is humiliate me.

TOM
You're talking crazy.

PHOEBE
No, I'm not.

TOM
What are you getting yourself all worked up for?

PHOEBE
I can't take it anymore.

TOM
[Taking hold of her wrist.] Come on, baby, stop it now.

PHOEBE
Let go of me.

TOM
I want you to stop it.

PHOEBE
Don't do this to me.

TOM
You're acting like an animal.

PHOEBE
Don't call me an animal!

TOM
I'm not calling you an animal. I'm saying you're acting like one.

PHOEBE
Don't do this to me.

TOM
Keep your voice down.

PHOEBE
Don't tell me what to do.

TOM
Hey—

PHOEBE
I'm warning you.

TOM
You want the neighbors to hear this?

PHOEBE
Come on, Tom.

Phone rings offstage.

TOM
See, that's probably Mrs. Benjamin, calling to complain.

PHOEBE
The woman's a Nazi.

TOM
[Pounding his head.] She was in a concentration camp. You want me to tell her that?

PHOEBE
Stop it, Tom.

TOM
The whole neighborhood knows you're an animal.

PHOEBE
I'm gonna kill you.

TOM
See that, like an animal. Let's call up Dick Edelman, and see what he thinks about that.


PHOEBE
Fuck Dick Edelman!

TOM
[Shouting.] Hey, Dick, did you hear that?

PHOEBE
Cut it out, Tom.

DIANE
Will someone answer the phone, I'm trying to do my homework.

TOM
[Threatening, pounding his fist into his hand.] You see that, your daughter's trying to do her homework, baby, and look how you're carrying on.

PHOEBE
Get away from me, you son of a bitch.

TOM
You gonna call me names, I'll slap you.

PHOEBE
You touch me and I'll kill you.

TOM
[Pushing her toward the living room.] Go answer the phone!

PHOEBE
Get away from me.

TOM
Answer the phone, for Christ sake. Get in there.

PHOEBE
Help.

TOM
You see what you're doing to me?

PHOEBE
Don't touch me, you piece of shit.

TOM
You see what you're turning me into?

PHOEBE
I don't know what you're talking about.

TOM
I'm this close to killing you.


PHOEBE
You're hurting me. Help.

Sound of DIANE, running downstairs to answer the phone.

DIANE
[Calling.] I'll get it.

PHOEBE
Diane, your father's trying to hurt me. Come help me before he hurts me.
Sound of phone picked up.

DIANE
Hello?

PHOEBE
Diane, help me.

TOM
[Pounding his fist into his hand.] Shut up!

DIANE
[After a pause.] Dad, it's for you.

TOM

I'm telling you something, baby. [Two fist pounds into his hand.] You know?

TOM exits to living room. Sound of DIANE, running upstairs, back to her room. PHOEBE collapses on the kitchen floor. Light changes, the kitchen remains.


Light illuminates a phone booth. THE KILLIAN BOY enclosed within. He speaks on the phone.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[Rapidly.] I don't know, Seymour, I feel like—I don't know, I feel like—Like—I don't know—like I can't...go on at all, you know. At all—I feel like—Like this—I don't know—I feel like—Like I can't...go on, you know. I feel—I think I feel when this—Feel this terror, terror, Seymour—this real-very—very real terror—you know, I feel like—I don't know, this—I just don't—I don't—I just don't think I—I don't know.

I just know—I know I can't go on like this. I can't—like this—go on, Seymour—not like this—that's all I know. A change? Not like this—there are no words. What? There are no words—to describe. No words. Don't have the words. I can't go on describing without words. Not without words. I can't. Can't without words. Can't without. There's this dread. What? Dread—terrible dread—morning, afternoon, evening—a dread. Terrible. Dread. Terrible. Do you know what I mean? As I speak now.

Wait, Seymour, my dime runs out! As I speak. There's no number, they've scratched it away. I've no more change. What? Seymour, where do I go from here? Wait, where do I go? I'm just repeating, repeating! Where do I go? What's the secret? What? The secret, yes, to a happy life, a good life. My dime runs out! How do I get there from here? How do I get there? I see no sign! Seymour, they interrupt us. Are you with someone? Are you with someone? Are you with someone now? May I call you back? May I call you back?

Hold. He hangs up. Hold. He exits the phone booth. Sound of automobile traffic. He looks both ways. He smiles sheepishly.

Don't do that.

Hold. He re-enters the phone booth, sound of automobile traffic out. Hold. He picks up. Dials zero.

Hello, Operator? I'd like to make a collect call. It's a local number—can I do that? Phoenix 9-6959. Um...The Killian boy. Tom. Thank you.

Through the phone, the sound of the number being dialed, phone ringing, phone picked up. From inside the phone, DIANE'S voice.

DIANE
Hello?

OPERATOR
Good evening, I have a collect call—

PHOEBE
Diane, help me.

OPERATOR
for Tom—

TOM
[Sound of fist pounded into hand.] Shut up!

OPERATOR
from the Killian boy.

DIANE
Dad, it's for you.

TOM
I'm telling you something, baby. [Two fist pounds into the hand.] You know?

Then the sound of a door opening, and someone running up a set of stairs. TOM'S voice.

Hello?

Light changes, PHOEBE speaks from her position on the kitchen floor.

PHOEBE
Hello, Jenny—it's Phoebe, how's Frank? It's Phoebe, how's Frank? Is Frank—how's Frank? How's Frank? Is Frank—how's Frank?

Light changes, as the kitchen and telephone booth travel.


Light illuminates the dining room. A table, nicely set. Four chairs. A door, right, shut—it leads to the kitchen. A door, left, open—it leads to the hall. Seated, enjoying dinner, TOM, PHOEBE, and THE KILLIAN BOY. THE KILLIAN BOY sits with his back to the open door. A fourth place is empty—the setting untouched—DIANE'S.

TOM
Aerospace.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Wow.

TOM
[Chuckling.] Missiles and bombers.

PHOEBE
[Pleasantly.] Who would like more asparagus?

TOM
ICBMs.

THE KILLIAN BOY
But what, specifically?

PHOEBE
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] More asparagus?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes, thank you.

TOM
This is a delicious meal, by the way, baby.

PHOEBE
I'm glad you're enjoying it.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Really delicious. Everything.

PHOEBE
Tom? How 'bout you? More asparagus?

TOM
Uh, sure. Not too much.

PHOEBE
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Do you like asparagus? Because I just love it.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I used not to like it. Now I do.

PHOEBE
It's my favorite. And there's more of everything, don't be shy. Potatoes. Chicken. What about some more chicken for you?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I'm fine for right now.

PHOEBE
Tom? Chicken? Potatoes? You're doing all right?

TOM
I got plenty right here.

PHOEBE
And we have green salad when you're ready. I'm sorry to interrupt.

TOM
No, I was just saying—

PHOEBE
Tom's work is classified. It's difficult for him to talk about what he does.

TOM
[A bit embarrassed.] Hey, come on, baby, you make it sound important.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Oh, gee, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—

TOM
It's nothing. I work in weights and measures.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Uh huh.

TOM
Nothing special.

PHOEBE
You know, I'm very glad you called us from the station. I didn't realize the bus stopped running this early. It was smart that you called.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Well, it's very nice of you to have me over.

PHOEBE
I just wish Diane would come down. She's not feeling well.

TOM
She should come down.

PHOEBE
[To TOM.] Oh, she and Gammara had some kind of fight, I don't know.

TOM
Again? She's too young to have a boyfriend.

PHOEBE
Well, I told you that. But you didn't want to interfere.

TOM
I didn't know how serious it was.

PHOEBE
Well, it's not that serious. It's just I think at this age they get kind of intense.
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Gammara is from Japan. But he's had a very difficult upbringing. His parents are divorced—which I think is very sad—because he's such a sweet boy.

TOM
He a nice kid.

PHOEBE
He's a little violent, though, Tom—which scares me.
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Anyway, his mother left Japan after the divorce—although she hardly speaks a word of English—which is odd—because the Japanese, in general, speak very good English—they learned after the War—but she has money—I don't think she works. [To TOM.] But Tom, you were talking about aerospace. What you do.

TOM
It's nothing.

PHOEBE
Tom works in weights and measures. At the Douglas plant.

TOM
When you design an aircraft, to insure that its design is aerodynamically sound—

PHOEBE
Boy, do I love asparagus. I could eat it all day.

TOM
[After a brief pause.} The weight and measure of each section of the aircraft...you have to calculate the weight and measure of each section to insure the aircraft is aerodynamically sound. This is determining...in designing...

So for instance in a rocket—my unit will calculate how much, for instance, a fin...we work with the designers—to determine how much, for instance, a fin can weigh...or the length...the kind of metal used in construction... what kind of materials will weigh... their properties... So that in trajectory... in flight... So we determine—

PHOEBE
It's all so sad, isn't it? I mean, I know it's important. But if someone should actually press those buttons some day. Boy oh boy, what a mess! I sure wish there was peace in the world. [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Don't you?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Oh, yes. I do.

PHOEBE
I pray for peace. I was just a girl during the War—a teenager. And it wasn't—of course we weren't subjected to what was going on in Europe. And all the Jews being slaughtered.

[Calling.] Diane? Are you in your room? I wish you'd come down to supper. We have company tonight. [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] I'm so sorry.

TOM
Maybe I should go upstairs and get her.

PHOEBE
No, Tom. Leave her. I don't know what's wrong. [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] I'm sorry. I wish she'd come down for you. Nothing much we can do. When my father passed away I cried and cried for days. He was such a good man. But now what? What are we left with—after they're gone? Tom had a hard time as a kid too. When your folks split up. Very sad. Tom's mother was a bit unstable. When they divorced she left Tom and his younger brother, Sidney, with their father and moved back to Chicago—started living with her Aunt Rose. Spent the rest of her life in that house. Never left that house. Wouldn't even speak on the phone. Complete recluse. [To TOM.] You talked to her—what—once, twice between the time she left and when she died?

TOM
I talked to her—I don't know—once, maybe twice. Once when I was away at college.

PHOEBE
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Tom went to school in Iowa. I never met her. She was on medication for years. The pain inflicted on Tom. We got a call one day she had passed away. Tom talked about never having seen her since she left the family—the long years without her—how he misses her to this day-how he's still in mourning. Calls out Mommy in his sleep. Imagine her—and she wasn't an old woman either. But locked herself up in that house with her aunt. Never felt the light of day again. Until she died. And then only briefly. Into the earth. Who's ready for dessert? Or I forgot, we have salad.

They all sense another presence—offstage. It is to THE KILLIAN BOY'S back. TOM and PHOEBE see.

TOM
Hey, angel. You came down.

PHOEBE
Come in, sweetie. We want you to meet the Killian boy. He used to live in this house.

From offstage, DIANE'S voice.

DIANE
[Shyly.] I don't know.

PHOEBE
Oh, come on, sweetie, don't be shy.

TOM
Come on in, princess, there's nothing to be afraid of. Your supper's getting cold.

DIANE
I'm not hungry.

PHOEBE
[Warmly.] Yes you are, honey. You were nagging me all afternoon about how hungry you were.

DIANE
But then I had crackers. Now I'm not hungry anymore.

TOM
Diane, the Killian boy's going to be very disappointed if he doesn't get to see you.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[Not turning.] I really will.

DIANE
I'll come in later.

TOM
There's nothing to be afraid of, kitten. This young man isn't going to hurt you. Come in and introduce yourself.

PHOEBE
Tom, maybe we better leave her alone for a bit. Maybe she'll come in later.

TOM and PHOEBE return to eating. THE KILLIAN BOY turns slowly to the offstage behind him. But as he does, light is extinguished.


Light illuminates the cellar. Stairs ascend. The door at the top of the stairs is open—light floods in. A single illuminated light bulb hangs center. Two small windows, raised high on the back wall, peek out at the surface—grass and daylight visible. PHOEBE stands near the top of the stairs—aproned. She holds a dish and a dish towel. In the cellar, a hospital bed—occupied. The bed is directed upstage, its upper half raised. Thus, only the top back of the patient's head is visible. Long white hair, strands cascading over the sides of the pillows. The patient is hooked up to an I.V. and several monitors that display the life signs. Standing beside the bed is THE KILLIAN BOY.

PHOEBE
[To herself.] Oh, dear. My goodness. And Tom at the office.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[To the patient.] I don't understand. What happened to you? They told me you moved away. Where's Dad? What's going on here?

Phone rings offstage.

PHOEBE
Oh, shoot!

THE KILLIAN BOY realizes PHOEBE is above him. Looks up at her. To THE KILLIAN BOY.

Don't move. I'll be right back.

PHOEBE exits. THE KILLIAN BOY takes hold of the patient's hand.

THE KILLIAN BOY
What's happening here?

Offstage, phone is picked up.

PHOEBE
Hello? Oh, hi, Jenny. No, but can I call you back? Yea, I'm just a little... No, nothing's wrong. I'm just... OK, fine, I'll call you back. I wanna hear about Frank.

Phone is hung up. PHOEBE returns without dish or dish towel.

I'm sorry. I should have told you sooner. We should have. Tom didn't want to upset you. We didn't—want to.

THE KILLIAN BOY
What happened?

PHOEBE
I don't know.

THE KILLIAN BOY
What is she doing here? Where's my father?

PHOEBE
I don't know. He's not here. I'm sure.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Can she hear me? Ma? Ma?

PHOEBE
I don't think she can hear you. She can't speak. Doesn't speak. At least not...

THE KILLIAN BOY
Is she dying?

PHOEBE
I don't know. Yes. It looks that way.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Oh, my god! Why isn't she in the hospital?

PHOEBE
I don't know! I don't know! I don't know anything! Tom—I'm sure Tom can explain everything. When he gets home from work this evening, you'll ask him. There must be an explanation.

THE KILLIAN BOY
She doesn't answer me.

PHOEBE
She's very sick. She wasn't sick when you last saw her?

THE KILLIAN BOY
In perfect health. This sudden change.

PHOEBE
I know. It's so sudden.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Why didn't you tell me my mother was here?

PHOEBE
Tom advised against it. I'm not sure.

Phone rings.

Oh, damn. I'll just let it ring. Why don't you come upstairs, sit in the kitchen with me while I do my ironing? I'll make you a cup of coffee.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I'm going to stay here with my mother.

PHOEBE
Oh, please. Please. Come keep me company.

Backdoor opens upstairs.

DIANE
[Offstage.] Hi, Mom, I'm home.

Phone stops ringing.

PHOEBE
OK, sweetheart.

DIANE
Was that the phone?

PHOEBE
I don't know. Why don't you grab an apple from the fridge. And pour yourself a glass of milk.


DIANE
Do we have any crackers?

PHOEBE
Diane, please, don't start eating crackers. You're going to ruin your appetite.

DIANE
Mom, dinner isn't for hours.

PHOEBE
Diane—

DIANE
Besides, what's the difference if I have an apple and milk, or if I have crackers?

PHOEBE
I hope to god you realize some day, Diane, how much you upset me. I hope some day you realize.

DIANE
Fine, I'll have an apple!

PHOEBE
Eat your goddamn crackers, I don't care.

DIANE
Mom, don't—

PHOEBE
I said, eat crackers—I'm through with you.

DIANE
They're not my crackers, first of all, they're everybody's. You bought them for the house.

PHOEBE
Diane, I don't want to discuss it anymore. You should know, though, that when your father wants a cracker...and he can't find one...because you've finished the box—

DIANE
Oh, shut up! I'm not even listening to you anymore.

Footsteps—DIANE is on her way up to her room.

PHOEBE
That's right, Diane, lock yourself in your room. That's a fine way to deal with things.

Door slams.

DIANE!
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Please, come upstairs,
leave your mother. She's not going anywhere.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I can't leave her here. We should bring her upstairs.

PHOEBE
Let's wait for Tom. Please, I have ironing to do. Let me make you a cup of coffee. I promise you, things will straighten themselves out—just don't press it, right now. There's a logical explanation for what's going on. I know there is. Even if I can't articulate it. There has to be. Please, be patient with us.

THE KILLIAN BOY looks up at PHOEBE, but continues to hold his MOTHER'S hand. Sound of a large dog, barking, pulling at its chain, fades up. Light is extinguished.


Sound of a large dog, barking, pulling at its chain, continues. Light illuminates TOM and PHOEBE'S bedroom. Large four-poster, center. Left of bed, small table—on table, lamp, alarm clock. Bright, Sunday morning light streams in through window, right and left of bed. Breeze blows curtains into room. Gentle. Right of bed, the bathroom door—ajar. Man's robe hangs on inside of door. Sound of a lawn mower. In bed, TOM and PHOEBE. TOM, right, PHOEBE, left. PHOEBE lies flat on her back. She wears a blue lame robe, visible where the cover ends. TOM is removing his underpants beneath the covers. Otherwise, bare. Drops underpants on floor beside bed—large, red-striped boxers. TOM moves toward PHOEBE.

TOM
[Manly.] Hi.

TOM attempts to put his hand into PHOEBE'S robe. She stops him.

PHOEBE
No, Tom.

Brushes his hand from her. Beneath the cover she pulls up her nightgown, adjusts her robe-makes available her vagina.

Here.

She spits in her hand.

I've got baking to do today, and marketing.

She puts her moistened hand beneath the cover—masturbates TOM. TOM touches her breast. When she feels him erect, she pulls him on top of her.

Come on, Tom.

TOM gets on top of PHOEBE, attempts to put himself inside her. She stops him.

PHOEBE
Wait.

She takes hold of his member, positions him correctly.

Go ahead.

He moves inside. PHOEBE embraces TOM. TOM fucks PHOEBE. Slow.

[After a while.] Hurry, Tom. I need to start baking. I'm meeting Jenny at 11:OO.

TOM raises himself on his hands—push-up style. Fucks more. Cums in PHOEBE. Great growls as he cums—his teeth exposed. When finished., he lies on top of PHOEBE, listens to the dog bark. Time passes.

TOM
[Peaceful.] That damn dog.

Time passes.

PHOEBE
[Gently.] I need to get going, dear.

TOM
OK, baby.

TOM pulls himself out and off of PHOEBE.

[Saluting.] Thank you very much.

PHOEBE gets out of bed, pulls down her nightgown, adjusts her robe. She exits right to bathroom.

PHOEBE
[As she exits.] Take a shower. I'll cook you eggs for breakfast.

TOM is getting out of bed. Huge bear penis—not completely flaccid yet.

[From offstage, chuckling.] That dog is really something.

TOM looks out left window.

TOM
Poor fella—he wants to go in. Why don't they let him in the house?

PHOEBE
[With dark sadness.] Take a shower, Tom.

Sound of shower turned on.

I'm putting the water on for you. [Containing a sob.] Hurry down, dear. I've got marketing to do.

Sound of door closed from other side of bathroom. TOM stays at left window, looks out. Turns, touches his penis.

TOM
What's a matter, boy?

TOM moves to the bed. Sits. PHOEBE'S side. Hold. Holds his penis. Sits, holding his penis. Masturbates. Sits there and masturbates. Curtains blowing, sound of dog barking, sound of lawn mowing, sound of shower as he masturbates.


Light illuminates the backyard. Sliding glass patio doors. A frosted bathroom window above. A fence. Standing center, a red rocket ship, aimed at the stars—its hatch open, a ladder descending to the ground. TOM'S legs stick out from underneath the rocket. He's making some last minute repairs with electrical equipment. Sparks flying. PHOEBE, aproned, slides open the patio doors. Detected vaguely through the frosted bathroom window above, THE KILLIAN BOY.

PHOEBE
Tom, we don't have all day.

[Calling offstage through the sliding door.] Diane, didn't I ask you to get into the ship? We're going to be blasting off any minute—I don't want to have to leave you behind.

From offstage, DIANE'S voice.

DIANE
Mother, would you please stop nagging me.


PHOEBE
I'm not nagging you.

DIANE
Yes, you are.

PHOEBE
No, I'm not. It's just—

Phone rings offstage.

Darn, I bet that's Jenny.

Kitchen timer rings offstage.

Oh, and my bird is done. Tom, have you seen The Killian boy?

TOM
[From underneath the rocket.] I think he's upstairs, shaving.

PHOEBE
Oh, boy, I hope we get out of here on time. They've launched their missiles. This is the end of the world.


PHOEBE exits through the sliding door. The bathroom window flies open, revealing THE KILLIAN BOY, lathered, standing at the sink, shaving. Buck naked but for a wrist watch. In one hand he holds a razor. In the other hand, a phone—the base resting on the floor, the cord extending underneath the bathroom door. He speaks on the phone.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I don't know, Seymour, should I go with them—what choice do I have, the world ends? So, really, there's no choice. Go with them. And my mother—I was planning on bringing her along—what do you think? Better if I could leave her behind. I don't think I can, Seymour, I don't think I can. I have tried. You know I've tried. She nears death.

Seymour, soon I'll leave the Earth. What if I don't see you again? Will you miss me? Will you miss me when I'm gone? You will?! I don't think I'll see you again, Seymour, I don't think I will. I have your number, yes. So I'll go with them. Yes. Like the end of Ulysses. Yes, yes.

He hangs up, finishes shaving.

How old am I? Thirty-six. A man. I'm no longer a boy. I look in the mirror. That's me shaving. A man, full grown. Hair on my body. Been there for years, but now I see it. If I live, I'll grow old. My body will continue to change. Hair will grey or disappear. My flesh will fade. Then I'll die. There'll be nothing. I'll be gone again.

Five knocks on the bathroom door. DIANE'S voice.

DIANE
It's me, hi. My mom is getting panicky. She wants to go.

THE KILLIAN BOY
OK, I'll be right out. Does you father need help with the rocket?

DIANE
I don't know. Do you think I should bring my math book along?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I guess so, sure. Why not?

DIANE
Do you think you could help me with some of my problems?

THE KILLIAN BOY
I'm not that good at math.

DIANE
You are.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Not really, Diane. You should get your father to help you. After all, he's an engineer. He excels in mathematics.

DIANE
I don't like asking my father for help.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Why not?

DIANE
Because he doesn't help me solve the problem. He just does it for me.

Last year I had to write a paper about Columbus and the discovery of America. Dad took one look at the paper and thought it was awful. We sat down together, for him to help me. He ended up writing the paper himself. There was hardly a word of mine in it. The Discovery of America. He wrote it. We got a B minus.

From offstage—as if downstairs, PHOEBE'S voice.

PHOEBE
What are you kids doing up there? The Earth is doomed. Hurry down.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[Calling to PHOEBE.] We're coming. [To DIANE.] Diane, when will you show yourself to me? I keep wandering. In all the time I've been here, I've never once seen you. Only your voice. There's always a wall between us.

DIANE
Open the door.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I can't right now. I'm undressed.

PHOEBE
[Coming up the stairs.] Diane.

THE KILLIAN BOY
You better go downstairs. I'll be right down.

Sound of DIANE heading downstairs. THE KILLIAN BOY begins to dress. Three knocks on the bathroom door, PHOEBE'S voice.

PHOEBE
[Softly.] I didn't mean to call you a kid. I'm sorry.

The bathroom window descends as THE KILLIAN BOY continues to dress. TOM gets out from underneath the rocket ship, wipes his hands with an old grease rag, talks to himself.

TOM
Well, well, well, house guests, heh? And who might you be? Oh, no, no, now don't tell me. Let's see, you're a...you're traveling in disguise. No, that's not right—I...You're a...you're going on a visit. No, I'm wrong—that's rather a... You're a...you're running away!

PHOEBE enters through the sliding door.

PHOEBE
[Catching him.] For god's sake, Tom. Stop that!

TOM
[Caught.] What's a matter?

PHOEBE
What are you doing?

TOM
Nothing.

PHOEBE
Stop fooling around!

TOM
All right, come on now—you surprised me. I think we're ready.

PHOEBE
You still haven't told me where you're taking us, Tom,

TOM
[Pointing into the sky.] Look.

PHOEBE
[Looking up.] Oh, my god, the missiles.

TOM
Look at that. Beautiful, isn't it? The trajectory.

PHOEBE
[Looking offstage through the sliding door.] Oh, Tom, hurry, help him. He's got his mother.

TOM exits through the sliding door.

[To herself, as she looks at the missiles.] Oh, Jenny. [A small gesture—as if plucking something from the air, bringing it to her heart.] Bring it along.

THE KILLIAN BOY and TOM enter, carrying THE KILLIAN BOY'S MOTHER in her hospital bed. She is still hooked up to all the life support machinery.

Easy does it fellas. Tom, watch yourself, don't scrape the walls. Ada spent all day cleaning yesterday. She does such a nice job.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Your poor mother. I feel sorry for her. What could have caused this terrible illness? Are you sure you wouldn't rather leave her behind?

THE KILLIAN BOY does not respond.

I guess not.

TOM and THE KILLIAN BOY carry THE KILLIAN BOY'S MOTHER up the ladder and into the rocket ship.

[To herself.] If he were my son... Well, he is my son—in a way. Isn't he? Aren't you? Why am I talking to myself?

PHOEBE exits through the sliding door. TOM and THE KILLIAN BOY emerge from the rocket ship.

TOM
Don't even think about it. She's locked in tight. It would take a great force to dislodge her.

THE KILLIAN BOY
OK.

TOM
What's your mother's name, by the way?

THE KILLIAN BOY
April, I believe. She never told me. But fishing through her drawers, one day, I came on an old snap shot A little girl—standing in a driveway—backed up against an auto—scrawny—hand on hip—pouting, clutching a broken doll—shadow of the photographer upon her. Scrawled in blue ink on the border, "April, 1936."

TOM
Could be the month.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Or her name. I'll never know.

PHOEBE enters with a large covered roasting pan.

PHOEBE
Tom, have you seen Diane?

TOM
What?

PHOEBE
[Calling offstage through the sliding door.] Diane, please, you're driving me crazy. Get in the ship!

From inside the rocket ship, DIANE'S voice.

DIANE
For god's sake, Mother, what do you want?

PHOEBE
What are you doing? Where are you?

DIANE
I'm in the rocket already. For christ sake!

PHOEBE
I swear, Diane. [To TOM.] Tom, why didn't you tell me she was on board?

TOM
I didn't see her get on. What are you getting so excited for, baby?

PHOEBE
Don't start with me, Tom. I'm serious. I'll throw this chicken at you.

TOM
Hey, watch it now.

DIANE
Will you two shut up, so we can get going.

PHOEBE
I'm really ready to drop dead, but let's just get the hell out of here. The missiles are upon us.

PHOEBE begins climbing the ladder. She hands the roasting pan to TOM.

Here, Tom, put the chicken on board.

TOM carries the roasting pan into the rocket ship.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Is your mother safely stowed?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes.

PHOEBE
[Cautiously.] You know I wish you were leaving her, and not bringing her.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Uh huh.

PHOEBE
[Demurely.] You don't mind, when I speak to people, if I refer to you as my son?

THE KILLIAN BOY
No, it's OK. But I'm not your son.

PHOEBE
I know. I'm sorry. Tom is not Diane's father. I was married once before. I left my first husband. He was very disturbed.

TOM pokes his head out from inside the ship.

TOM
We better get going.

PHOEBE
OK.

PHOEBE boards the rocket ship.

TOM
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Say good-bye to the world. Next stop, Mars!

THE KILLIAN BOY boards the rocket ship. TOM closes the hatch. Engines ignite. The rocket ship blasts off. The Earth is destroyed by missiles.


ACT TWO

Ding dong. Light illuminates Mars. Barren, dusty terrain. Distant mountains. Cloudy sky. Wind blowing. Right of center, the rocket ship, fallen on its side, cracked open. Its landing legs are extended—either it crashed, and the legs proved useless, or it made a safe landing, but over time has been left to rust and junk. General refuse—solid waste littered about. A small encampment, left—a shabby tent—flaps blowing in the Martian wind. Near the tent, PHOEBE., topless, kneeling by a metal washtub, washing her breasts with a dish towel. She hasn't been to the beauty parlor in months. Wears the same apron over the same skirt. All gone ratty. Same shoes, but the heels have long since broken off.

PHOEBE
Been brought down. Clean my tits. Wash my jugs. The language you use now, Phoebe. If I'm lucky, I won't talk long. Something will happen. A change in fortune. That's it. I'll get out of here. Until then—wash yourself.

From within the tent, a phone rings. PHOEBE lets it ring.

See something else.

TOM enters from behind the rocket ship, right. He is nude, his huge bear penis erect. He is followed by THE KILLIAN BOY. THE KILLIAN BOY is also nude.

Observe this.

TOM
Come on, son.

TOM kneels in the dust. THE KILLIAN BOY kneels before him, prostrating himself, taking TOM'S penis into his mouth.

That's a boy.

THE KILLIAN BOY gives TOM oral sex. TOM'S hand on the back of THE KILLIAN BOY'S head.

TOM
[To himself.] This is what you were waiting for. Wasn't it? All these years. Then let them see it. I don't care.

PHOEBE
I grow accustomed to this. Indeed I do.

TOM
Hell, honey. I've grown accustomed to this. But how am I punished.

TOM takes his hand from the back of THE KILLIAN BOY'S head. Puts both hands on his hips. Music sounds: Benedictine Nuns.

[Expounding, generally.] Surround yourself with youth and you'll never grow old. Chow, chow, chow, chow, chow. There is a force. An energy. Make contact with it.

You begin with a point. This point is a contact. An opening. Allow it to enter you. It will open you.

It is a point of light. This light enters you. It is a goodness.

Open yourself to this goodness. You see, there's nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. This force will purify you.

PHOEBE
Once I was happy. I walked in the sun, felt its warmth on my head. Then disaster struck, and I wasn't prepared.

TOM
You establish a form by imposing a structure. Begin with a point. Establish that point in space, a point of light. Now throw a second point out into space, a second point of light. Connect those two points of light with a line segment. Feel the energy move between those two points of light. Chow, chow, chow, chow, chow, chow, chow.

PHOEBE
Once, long ago, I was happy. I walked in the light of day. Then darkness came, covered me.

TOM
You establish a third point. A third point of light. These points of light are knowledge. [To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Keep moving on me, boy.

THE KILLIAN BOY affirms vocally, as he continues sucking TOM'S penis.

Where was I?

PHOEBE
Things began pleasantly enough, didn't they? Now look what you've done.

TOM
[Remembering.] The third point, yes. Three points of light.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] That's good.

PHOEBE
We'd hoped to leave behind us all the suffering and sordidness on Earth. The horrible human race. But look what's happened. A nightmare.

TOM
[Expounding.] Three points. These three points connected divine a triangle. A trinity. Three points of light. Chow, chow, chow.

PHOEBE
I'll never forgive you, Tom—for bringing us here. What you promised me!

TOM
This trinity is illumination. Three points of knowledge. You experience it. It experiences you.

PHOEBE
[Calling.] Diane! Diane, where are you? Your mother's calling you. [To herself.] I hope she hasn't wandered into the mountains.

TOM
Now break form!

TOM puts his hand on the back of THE KILLIAN BOY'S head, pushes THE KILLIAN BOY harder up and down on his penis.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Really work it.

PHOEBE
I'm stuck in the mud.

TOM
[Expounding.] You envision a fourth point. Chow!

PHOEBE
Phoebe say shit.

TOM
You slit your triangle. The trinity dissolves. Four points now, unaligned in space. Chow, chow, chow, chow. But ah! You give meaning. You create a new form by imposing structure. From chaos, order. Stay with me!

TOM holds THE KILLIAN BOY by his hair, holds him down on his penis.

Now. You force these four points of light into a new alignment, a new structure.

PHOEBE
This is madness, isn't it?

TOM
[Gesturing.] You draw a line segment from point A to point B. Chow.

PHOEBE
Or maybe everybody lives this way.

TOM
[Gesturing.] Now quick, connect points C and D, another line segment. Chow, chow.

PHOEBE
Or is it like the Christians say, our little lives are but a reckless prelude to some divine afterbirth?

TOM releases THE KILLIAN ROY'S hair, gives him a crack on the back of his head. THE KILLIAN BOY resumes moving up and down on TOM'S penis.

TOM
Now, you're ready. [Gesturing.] Impose line segment CD upon line segment AB at one quarter distance from A on AB. Yes! That's it.

PHOEBE
A revelation, I'm sure.

TOM orgasms into THE KILLIAN BOY'S mouth, holds THE KILLIAN BOY'S head on his penis as he orgasms.

TOM
A cross! You lay down on it. "Oh, father, father..." Some shit like that.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Just swallow it, boy.

PHOEBE
Forgive us. To put you through this. It wasn't my idea. The sweet Sabbath wine has turned to vinegar.

TOM
So much for him.

TOM pulls his penis from THE KILLIAN BOY'S mouth, pushes him aside. THE KILLIAN BOY buries his face in the dust, moaning, spitting up TOM'S jism. The spitting up not visible to the audience. TOM squats. The music stops.

Now, let's sit here in the dust and share philosophy. We are players, aren't we? Some rude mechanics.

PHOEBE
This is awful. I won't be a part of this.

[Calling, as she puts on her brassiere.] Diane! Diane, why aren't you listening to me? I hope you haven't wandered into the mountains.

PHOEBE puts on her blouse. The phone stops ringing.

The phone stops ringing. I hope it wasn't Jenny. To keep her waiting like this. Will she forgive me?

PHOEBE exits into the tent.

TOM
[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] Oh, yes, I suffer too. You're not the only one. Self-indulgent little whelp. Think how this affects me. The things I'm forced to do. Phoebe was right. Something she said. I can't remember.

PHOEBE rolls out THE KILLIAN BOY'S mother. As ever, in her hospital bed. She is still attached to her I.V., but not the rest of the equipment.

PHOEBE
I've done the best I could.

TOM
Thank you, dear. You have. Sit with me.

PHOEBE
I've done as directed. Let me go.

[To THE KILLIAN BOY.] It's your mother.

PHOEBE exits into the tent. THE KILLIAN BOY rises, goes to his MOTHER, lays himself across her on the hospital bed, weeps.

TOM
Go to your mother, son. While I sit in the desert and philosophize. Yes, it's growing dark. Night falls. I'll sit up all night and ruminate. The stars to contemplate.

Indeed, it has grown dark. The clouds have rolled by, and night has fallen by PHOEBE'S last exit. The Martian sky is filled with stars. The asteroid belt is visible. And Jupiter—a prominent dot. Most conspicuous are the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos. The wind still blows.

I marvel at the universe. What a strange place.

And so it is. Light changes, as the set travels.



A mile or so from the encampment—another barren stretch of the planet. It is day—late afternoon. Dim sun. A wind. The two moons are visible—not far from each other in the sky. THE KILLIAN BOY stands, up left, shovel in hand, a protuberance in the ground beside him. He has buried something.

THE KILLIAN BOY
She's gone. How do we survive? No life. Better buried.

DIANE enters from down right. She is robed—like a patriarch—in soft earth colors. Radiant, she appears cleansed. She walks with a long staff. Time passes.

DIANE
Hello.

THE KILLIAN BOY turns.

It's me. I'm back.

THE KILLIAN BOY
[Hardly believing.] Diane. Diane?

DIANE
It's me.

THE KILLIAN BOY
You came back.

DIANE
Down from the mountain.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes. You were gone.

DIANE
[Acknowledging the grave.] Your mother.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes. She's dead. It took her a long time. But you've returned. Years since you went away. Where did you go?

DIANE
Up, into the mountains.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I waited for you.

DIANE
Did you?

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes, every evening. I looked in all directions, hoping for some sign. Hoping you'd appear, reappear.

DIANE
My mother told me I'd find you here.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes. Did you see your father?

DIANE
Pretty feeble.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes, he's been that way. Sits on the ground, mumbles.

[Still hardly believing what he sees.] Diane. I can't believe you've returned. I waited so long. And I'd never seen you. But your voice. Your voice I remember. Though it's changed. It's changed too.

DIANE
I'm older.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes. What did you do in the mountains?

DIANE
There are people there. I lived with them.

THE KILLIAN BOY
People? In the mountains?

DIANE
On the mountain, yes.

THE KILLIAN BOY
There are people. My god.

DIANE
Yes. I lived with them. Learned from them.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Did you?

DIANE
Yes.

THE KILLIAN BOY
What did they teach you?

DIANE
I'm going to repair the ship. I know how.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Repair the ship, really? Blast off from this dust heap?

DIANE
I have the knowledge.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Take us off this planet, Diane.

[With longing.] I never saw you before you went away. All that time. Only your voice. How it sounded to me! I could listen to you sing for hours. You sang, remember? For hours, listening to your voice. And now you stand before me. Radiant one. Diane.

My mother... I'll leave her here. When we blast off, I'll leave her here on Mars.

DIANE
That's best.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Where will you take us? The Earth has been destroyed.

DIANE
There are a million worlds. I have the knowledge.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Do you? Your father would be so proud of you. And your mother. Have you told them?

DIANE
Nothing yet. I've come to tell you first because...1 intend to leave them behind.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Oh, no. You what?

DIANE
I'm going to leave them behind.

THE KILLIAN BOY
But—

DIANE
You dragged your mother along with you—how many years now? Until she's finally collapsed. I'm not making the same mistake.

THE KILLIAN BOY
But Diane, your parents are old and feeble. You saw. They couldn't care for themselves.

DIANE
[Gently.] Then let them die. You'll come with me. I have the knowledge, I promise you. Even Seymour advised you to leave your mother behind. I know what's right.

THE KILLIAN BOY turns to his MOTHER'S grave.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I had no marker to lay down. Just this mound of dirt.

DIANE
Better that way, isn't it? Let me go back. You mustn't say a thing to my parents. I've told you. The ship will be ready soon. I'll take you away. Yes?

THE KILLIAN BOY
[After a pause.] All right.

DIANE
I'll see you back there. [Fondly.] I knew what you looked like. All those years. Even when you couldn't see me. I knew what you looked like.

DIANE exits. Time passes.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Good-bye, mother.

THE KILLIAN BOY turns from his MOTHER'S grave. As he does, light changes, and the set travels.


The encampment. Years later. The rocket ship is gone. The place is cleaner, but the same old dust bowl. It is night. Clear sky. All the stars are out—the asteroids, and the two moons. Jupiter—a prominent dot. And Saturn, too—with its rings! PHOEBE sits on a rock before afire, just left of center. A black kettle hangs over the fire. PHOEBE has changed. She is an old woman now—almost a crone—plump and white-haired. She wears a shawl. She is peeling a potato. Up right, THE KILLIAN BOY stands gazing into the heavens.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Quite a night, old mother, isn't it?

PHOEBE
We live under the stars. On a little ball rolling through space.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Yes. All of heaven.

PHOEBE
I'm peeling a potato. For the soup!

THE KILLIAN BOY
Are you making a potato soup?

PHOEBE
Yes. To warm you. My old friend, Jenny, taught me this recipe.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Did she?

PHOEBE
I take it from her. A good potato soup.

PHOEBE chops the potato, puts it into the soup.

THE KILLIAN BOY
We live under the stars. That was years ago that Diane left us.

PHOEBE
[As she stirs the soup.] Poor Jenny Woodman. She had a hard life. Her husband, Frank, was a sick man. He was a young man, but he had a crippling disease. It struck him early in life. In his thirties. And her son-in-law hung himself.

Soon you'll bury me beside Tom and your mother, out in the dirt field.

THE KILLIAN BOY
The whole place is a dirt field, old mother.

PHOEBE
That's true. A good potato soup.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I'll be alone then. My only comfort is that I'll follow you.

PHOEBE
You'll live a while longer.

THE KILLIAN BOY
I've lived a long time.

PHOEBE
Maybe you'll go up into the mountain. Like Diane did.

THE KILLIAN BOY
No, I'm not going to go up into the mountain. I just want to keep this place clean, a bit. The wind blows all the time. There are the stars. I watch the planets wander. Diane is out there some place. She left without us.

PHOEBE
That was such a long time ago. I've almost forgotten her.

THE KILLIAN BOY
Have you really?

PHOEBE
Soon I'll die. It will be good to lie down. Come, the soup is ready. You'll eat.

THE KILLIAN BOY sits beside PHOEBE. She gives him a bowl of soup. They eat the soup.

It's a little watery. I only had one potato.

Quietly, they continue to eat the soup. Light is extinguished.


The final scene. The encampment. Morning. Bright light. Pale blue sky. Light wind. Time passes. From within the tent, the sound of a man waking—a healthy yawn. Some whistling—fragments of a tune. Then quiet. Then more whistling. Sound of water, splashed on the face. The man makes a sound as he splashes himself. THE KILLIAN BOY emerges from the tent, wiping his face with a clean white towel. He is old now—white-haired. He stands a few feet from the tent, looks out in all directions, surveys the horizons. Whistles, You've Changed. Same tune he whistled in the tent. Time passes. Stands there and whistles. The vastness. Then light is extinguished.

Copyright (c) 1995 by David Greenspan. Published as Son of an Engineer (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.