The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Off-Broadway Bound

During my second year of Repertory, when I was still very young and very afraid, I was friends with a guy named Scott. Scott was two years older than me and a lot more experienced in theatre and really knew where his head was at; until one summer he figured out he was gay and fell apart at the seams.

For some reason, discovering he was gay caused Scott to drop out of Repertory and join a horrible community theatre group that was run by an insane woman named Phyllis, who insisted on writing, producing, and directing all the plays herself. Fortunately, she had lots of money, so she was able to do this unquestioned. She took Scott under her wing and we all stopped worrying about him.

Several weeks later, Scott called me in a panic; the leading lady of Phyllis's latest dramatic effort had had a nervous breakdown and had to quit the play. Could I possibly take the part?

Terrified, I spoke to the head of the Repertory, who was still angry with Scott for quitting, gay or not. He said he didn't care what I did, as long as it didn't interfere with his rehearsals. I called Scott back and said I would look at the script.

The play was called The Brass Peddler Prince, and was really, really bad. Don't worry if you've never heard of it. It was the saga of a married man who stops in a local shop to buy his pregnant wife a present, and ends up in a torrid affair with the shop clerk. It was a musical, and all the songs were by...Neil Diamond.

I would be playing the role of the pregnant wife, Scott explained, as he drove me to the theatre to meet Phyllis. It was supposedly a "meaty" role.

When we got there, it didn't take me long to figure out that Phyllis was biopolar, as she alternatively cried hysterically and laughed like a maniac throughout the evening. I was also introduced to Keith, the leading man. Keith considered himself to be "a serious actor" and "a movie star." The reason he thought this was because he had somehow landed a bit part in a movie that, because of legal reasons, I can only refer to as The Donald Sutherland Movie, which was being filmed at the same time The Brass Peddler Prince was rehearsing. Keith said we were "lucky to get him."

Weeks of rehearsal went by, and it came down to the final week. I was nervous, not because of my role (I had long since memorized the part, including the dreadful Neil Diamond songs), but because of Keith. Keith was so caught up with The Donald Sutherland Movie that he gave no effort at all to the play, and as a result had no idea what his lines were. At all. He had a vague idea of what his character was supposed to do during the play, and figured that any lines he said to get him to this end were fine. This was very frustrating to the other actors, who had actually memorized their lines and as a result, most of Keith's scenes made no sense.

The tearful Phyllis made an announcement. Somehow, she had hobbled together enough money to take The Brass Peddler Prince to an Off-Broadway theatre on West 57th Street (it's still there). We were going big time.

Opening night came, and Scott and I took the train into New York. Keith was already there, babbling about The Donald Sutherland Movie and flitting around backstage. Phyllis had on her headset and was freaking out.


Keith stumbled and babbled throughout the first act. He managed to forget two Neil Diamond songs entirely, and in his scenes with me he kept skipping whole pages of dialogue. I tried to keep up, but the play simply made no sense. It was like watching Samuel Beckett on acid. Keith wound up the first act by grabbing me, kissing me passionately, and then turning to the audience and asking; "How's that for entertainment?"

In the front row, Frank Rich, theatre critic for The New York Times, was writing furiously.

During the second act, Keith's mind disappeared entirely. In the middle of one of the Neil Diamond songs, he got a look on his face that I immediately recognized. It said; when I get to the end of this lyric, I will have no idea what to say next.

And he didn't. He opened his mouth and nothing came out. I tried valiantly to sing his lyrics, but they made no sense coming from me. In the wings, I could see Phyllis crying and Scott slowly shaking his head. Keith proceeded to ad-lib the entire rest of the play. When the whole damn thing was finally over, at least the plot had been saved.

We were panned by Frank Rich. We were panned by The Village Voice. We were panned by Neil Diamond.

Eventually, the only audience we had as the run went on consisted of winos who were looking for a way out of the cold. Finally, four weeks later, The Brass Peddler Prince finished its run, and we were mercifully cancelled.

The Donald Sutherland Movie, it turned out, was also bad. To this day, I want to meet Mr. Sutherland so I can ask him about Keith.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the price of fame.

Next time: Oh, I don't know. I'll think of something.