You might remember that 90’s TV series, Stainless, about a veterinarian doctor who solves crimes while helping to heal all kinds of animals. Dr. Kevin Stain was the vet, played by what’s-his-name, with a lady friend, the librarian Emily Hobson, and his faithful dog Lester. I believe you can binge watch it on Netflix or HBO or one of those channels. Believe it or not, it ran for eight years, although I’ll never understand why. Cute animals, maybe.
Anyway, the story I’m writing, which is true, is not about the stars or even the dog but about, what is called in showbusiness, a supporting player. Myer Masterson, born and bred in Orange New Jersey, had a reoccurring role on the mystery/comedy Stainless as the owner of Louie’s Bar and Grill. He portrayed Louie Kaplan, a wisecracking barkeep with a heart of gold. He appeared in almost every episode (104, to be exact) as the friend Dr. Stain would turn to for advice about a case he was working on or on how to woo his girlfriend Emily. Louie would always have some sage advice for the doc, peppered with humor and a caustic jibe or two.
By the second season Myer had firmly established himself as a favorite of the faithful followers of Stainless. They adored the wise bartender who dispensed such witty and helpful guidance. He became a Tuesday evening CBS icon. ‘It’s time for Louie!’ was heard in households across the land as they tuned into the hour-long show.
By the third season he was nominated for an Emmy. By the fourth he had won the Emmy, for Outstanding Supporting Player in an Ongoing Drama Series. He also won a salary increase. However, he did not win the hearts of all of his fellow castmates, but they tolerated him because he helped keep the show on the air. By the way, the less in Stainless stood for the beginning letters of the name of the Doc’s dog Lester. Get it? Less-ter? Pretty feeble, right? Lester the dog couldn’t stand Myer and the feeling was mutual.
Myer Masterson, born Myer Makowski, had been working as an actor since he was twenty. He got his start off-off Broadway, working for free in an Avant Garde theatre company called Play Dead Incorporated. Its mission was to produce plays that had failed either on or off Broadway. Myer blossomed performing in some pretty awful plays. He became hooked on acting and supported what he called his habit by waiting tables. He studied acting, kept auditioning and eventually got a small part in a very successful production of a new play off-Broadway. Because it was the event of the season it was visited by many theatre professionals, including directors and agents. A young woman from the Harris Theatrical Agency met with Myer after a performance and, after his meeting with the head honchos, he was invited to join the agency on a temporary basis. They would send him out on interviews and auditions and if he proved to be an asset they would sign him up. He proved to be very employable.
By the time he was thirty he had made it to Broadway. He was cast in a not so great play but in a part that fit him perfectly, the wisecracking but lovable best buddy. The audience adored him as did some of the critics who found him the only redeeming aspect of the play. What followed was a decade of being type cast as the funny sidekick of the leading man.
What the general pubic doesn’t know is that most actors who work in the theatre don’t make a lot of money. They have to augment their income with other forms of employment and so they turn to auditioning for commercials, regional theatre, road shows and television. Myer did it all. He was a dancing waffle in an Eggo commercial, a doctor advising a patient on the soothing powers of Ativan. He toured the boonies with a production of The Odd Couple and he played in a production of Time of Your Life at the Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio, among many other gigs.
What turned everything around was when he got his first big TV role. He had an interesting part on an episode of Law and Order as a witness to a crime. Someone in the production office liked his devil-may-care attitude and recommended him for another show. This led to his eventually moving west to Los Angeles and bringing his best buddy persona to a lot of sit coms.
At the ripe old age of forty-five he landed the role of Louie in Stainless and suddenly he was moving into the high income bracket. He finally was able to make some real money, buy a nice home, a decent car and to not have to hustle anymore. He even became somewhat famous, with an interview in Entertainment magazine, an article in TV Guide and an item in the Star-Ledger about the boy from Orange New Jersey who made it big in Hollywood.
The honeymoon lasted for eight years and then it was over. Myer was living comfortably now, in retirement, and would continue to do so with a considerable nest egg and some healthy residual paychecks. So, his financial future was as good as it gets. As to his continuing career, he found he had several options. He could lock himself into another series or a sit com, playing the good old best bud, but he was tired of being type cast and, at fifty-three, he was just plain tired, period. Working on a TV series for eight years takes a toll. He could really retire, buy a ranch somewhere or a condo in Florida or travel, see the world. He could reopen his search for the perfect woman, which had sort of been sitting on the back burner. Not that he hadn’t had his share of romantic interludes but nothing that was even close to a permanent relationship.
Myer never truly felt at home in California. He wasn’t the sun and surf sort of guy. “You can take the boy out of the East Coast but you can’t take the East Coast out of the boy.” Every year, he would fly back to New York after the last episode of the latest season of his series was in the can. He’d spend time with friends and family, take in the latest Broadway shows and visit the Harris Agency. Now that Stainless was no more, and there wasn’t anything being offered to him that he really wanted to commit to, he decided to return East permanently.
He bought a loft in SoHo, moved in with his Emmy and all his possessions and started making plans for his return to the stage. In an interview in the Star Ledger he talked about his coming home.
“LA was good to me but my roots are here in New York. My first love was the theatre, it was where I started. I feel I must get back on the boards, wake up the acting muscles that I’ve let get flabby from misuse. I owe it to my public and to myself.”What Myer didn’t discuss with the reporter was the other reason he wanted to return to the stage, probably the real reason. For all these years, starting with his early roles, he was never once cast as the lead. He was always the second banana, the comic relief, the best friend of the leading man. He never got the girl, won the battle or solved the crime. His was the shoulder to cry on, the ear to confess in and the voice to give you advice. He was always the best man, never the groom.
He was pretty sure that directors, casting agents and other actors didn’t see him as charismatic or handsome enough to carry a play. They probably thought he couldn’t even act either, that he just sailed along on his charm. Lots of personality but no talent.
He was never given the opportunity to shine as he knew he could and now, that he wasn’t tied down to a TV series, he was going to devote himself to getting back to where he belonged, the legitimate theatre. New York, look out! Myer Masterson was back in town.
He started his campaign by visiting the Harris Agency and insisting they start submitting him for serious roles in serious Broadway productions. They tried to explain to him that that was not where his strength lay but he was having none of it.
“I was acting on Broadway before some of you were even born so don’t you tell me where I don’t belong! I’m a hot property right now due to Stainless. I won a fucking Emmy, for god’s sake! Everyone knows my face and, before they begin to forget it, you need to use that recognition to get me a leading part in a good play. My name on a marquee will sell tickets so, please, wake up and do your job, please!”
The agency did their best but there are fewer plays produced on Broadway every year. Musicals are the big moneymakers these days and Myer was not a singer or a dancer. He got exactly one audition for a play. It was for Conclusion, a new play about racism in college. The role was for an effete art teacher and, although he tried his best, effete and art just weren’t in his repertoire.
For the next few months nothing came his way but scripts for sit coms and films with titles like Party Animals and A Puppy for Peter. “I’m a little long in the tooth to be playing a frat boy and I’m not about to be a straight man for a dog! I spent eight years on a series with a canine who hated my guts so---no thank you.”
When it was obvious that the agency wasn’t going to be able to accommodate him, Myer decided to take a break. He spent more time at the gym, visited a few of the hottest clubs but found the music not to his liking and finally, in desperation, began auditing some acting classes. He figured that if he found a class that was a good fit he could at least use it to keep his instrument in tune and shake off some of the rust. It was at the third drama class that he attended that his life was changed forever. He watched a young aspiring actress working on a monologue from Crimes of The Heart. Her name was Ginny Macpherson. She was beautiful in a wild and raw, but innocent, manner and Myer was totally blown away.
He decided not to register for the class but he stuck around afterward and struck up a conversation with the young actress. At first, he was a bit upset that she didn’t recognize him but, when she explained that her family never watched Stainless but preferred to watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, he forgave her. He invited her to join him for a cup of coffee and the impressionable young woman found herself staring at this charming and funny man as they shared a table at Starbucks. He soon had her giggling at his stories of his behind-the-scene antics on the set of Stainless.
“---so, when he opened his medical bag all these wind-up butterflies flew out,” Myer confessed, laughing, “and they were dropping and flopping around. The doc was not a happy camper but the director thought it was funny. He even talked about working it into the scene.” Ginny smiled and Myer suddenly felt embarrassed. “I tried to come up with a practical joke per each episode just to keep things fresh, you know, keep everyone on their toes.”
Although he talked a lot about himself, he did shut up long enough to learn a few things about Ginny. She was from Allentown, Pennsylvania, had attended Julliard and had been in several off off off Broadway plays. She had done one national commercial for Hertz, which was helping pay the bills, and had had a small part in an independent film.
“There are no small parts---” Myer started to say.
“I know, ‘only small actors.’ But believe me, this was a small part. I was a dead body.”
As the weeks passed, Myer found himself in a place he had never really been before---he was madly, hopelessly in love. Ginny was such a breath of fresh air, so unlike the typical young person seeking their fame and fortune. She was smart, centered and down to earth, not flighty and unrealistic about the career she had chosen. And while she was very beautiful she was obviously not vain. Myer began spending more time with her, eating his lunch at the little Italian restaurant where she waited tables, treating her to a movie or a play and waiting for her after her acting class.
It was after one of those classes, when they were having their usual lattes at Starbucks, that Myer had one of those aha! moments. He saw Ginny in a brand new light. She was talking about the difficulty she was having with the scene she was working on.
“My scene partner is very sweet but he hasn’t a clue about what the scene is about, let alone the whole play. I find myself wanting to direct him when we’re rehearsing which is a real no-no with our teacher. It’s very frustrating.”
“I want you to move in with me.”
“What?” Ginny asked, taken aback, “Wow, that came out of nowhere!”
“I want you to get out of that apartment you share with your four roommates. Yes, I know that’s the only way you can afford a place in the city. But, I have my big loft and you’re spending a couple of nights a week there anyway.”
“It’s settled. We should have done this weeks ago. I like you and I know you like me and I can help you with your classes and your career. I have many contacts I can hook you up with. You wouldn’t have to struggle to pay the rent, I’m a great cook---I mean I am, aren’t I?”
“Five Star---but I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of being beholden to you. You’ve already done so much for me. And I’ve had to fight so hard for my independence---”
“I don’t want you to give up your independence. That’s one on the things I love about you. We’ll set up a nice little corner in the loft that’ll be your private area. The guest bathroom will become yours alone. Ginny, I just want to help you.”
“I know, but—”
“Is it the sex thing? I mean if---”
“No, no. I enjoy the sex.”
“Me too. The age difference?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Don’t be ridiculous. Most of the young men I know are still stuck back in their teen years or they’re gay or they’re mama’s boys. I’ll take a grown-up man any day.”
“Thank you, but, I don’t want you to feel pressured so take some time to think it over.”
And she did. She moved in with Myer the very next week.
Things worked out quite well, at first. Ginny had her own space and her own set of keys. Myer cooked and she cleaned up. He showed her his front-loading washer and dryer and she did his laundry as well as her own. She visited his bed once in a while for some amorous adventures but slept alone in her own little corner. All in all, it was a pretty good arrangement.
Myer, per his promise, lined her up with a few directors and casting agents that he knew, and she got a couple of auditions. He also helped her learn the scenes she was working on in class by cueing her. As the weeks passed, he began giving her a little direction as well. After all, he had picked up a few tricks during his thirty plus years in the business. She was not too thrilled with his coaching but she kept her mouth shut and muddled through.
About a month and a half into this arrangement, Ginny came back to the loft after a particularly discouraging audition to find Myer cooking up a spectacular dinner. The trestle table was covered with a lace edged damask tablecloth on which rested Ceramica china, Waterford crystal wine glasses and white candles in a sterling silver candelabra. She could smell something rich with spices and suddenly found herself ravenous.
“What’s this? A fancy meal to celebrate the worst audition I’ve ever had?”
“Oh, babe, I’m sorry it didn’t go well. But this is actually the kick off for something really exciting!”
“What is it?”
“Sit down. I’ll tell you all about it over dinner,” Myer said, putting a bowl of salad on the table. “Tonight’s menu is Shrimp Diablo, with wild rice pilaf and an endive salad, with lime sorbet for dessert.”
“Sounds delicious,” Ginny replied.
“The wine of the evening is Cloudy Bay’s Te Ko, the best Sauvignon Blanc you will ever taste. It’s from New Zealand. Some of their wines are better than in France, in my opinion. Of course, I realized we should actually be celebrating with champagne.”
“What are we celebrating?”
“A couple of things,” he said, as he brought the rest of the meal to the table, “Our sixth week anniversary---”
“You’ve been keeping track.”
“And the second thing we’re celebrating?”
Myer lifted his wine glass and announced, with a big smile, “We’re going to Broadway!”
“You mean tonight? Oh, please, Myer, not this evening. I’m really tired---”
“No, no, darling girl. We’re going to be on Broadway!”
Later, over dessert and coffee, Myer explained how all this came about. “I’ve been trying to find a way to get back to working in the theatre. Auditioning has been a total bummer. I know you can relate to that. Then I remembered what a friend said to me years ago; ‘Myer, you can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. You have to create your own work.’ So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m producing and directing and acting in a play of my choice, with you as my leading lady.”
At first, Ginny was just stunned. “Wow! I don’t know what to say. While I admire your ambition, Myer, and I’m honored that you’d consider me good enough of an actor to join you on this---adventure---but, do you realize what you would be getting yourself into? I mean, and please don’t take this the wrong way, what do you know about producing? And have you ever directed before? And the cost! We’re talking a million easy.”
“Well, I’ve got enough in my nest egg to get us started and then we’ll look for some angels. I’ve got a lot of friends who would love to back a Broadway show. As to directing, I did direct one of the last episodes of Stainless---Lester to The Rescue. If I can make a dog act and look good, well---"
Ginny thought the example of directing a dog was a poor one and, in a way, rather insulting but she didn’t want to dampen Myer’s spirits. Given his energy, his personality and his ability to convince anyone of anything, he might be able to pull it off. And, truth be told, the opportunity to appear on a Broadway---wasn’t that every actor’s dream? Get real, girl, this is your big chance!
“Have you found the play you want to do?” Ginny asked, as she dipped her spoon into the Lime sorbet, “Is it a new play by a new writer?”
“I don’t want to waste time reading a lot of awful plays by unknown writers so I thought I’d look into doing a revival. Something with some meat in it.”
“That sounds---sensible. Have you made any choices?”
“Well, I’ve narrowed it down to two; Gibson’s Two For The Seesaw and---”
“Seesaw would work very well, being a two-character play.”
“Right, but I’ve also been looking at Victims of Duty---
“I’m not familiar with that title. Who’s the author?”
“Ionesco, you know, one of those absurdist guys, from France.”
“Oh,” was all Ginny could find to say.
“It’s funny but serious at the same time.”
“Isn’t it kind of---of---avantgarde for a commercial Broadway production?”
“Not really,” Myer responded, “Remember Rhinoceros? Zero Mostel turning into a Rhino? Brilliant!” Ginny shakes her head. “Oh, right, you’re too young. Before your time. Anyway, it was a big hit. Same for Waiting for Godot.”
“Wasn’t that written by Samuel Beckett?”
“Yeah, same difference, no big deal. Just another one of those absurdist guys.”
Ginny thought there were a few scholars who might disagree. But she decided not to engage in a debate. “So what are your thoughts about Two For The Seesaw? It seems kind of tailormade for the two of us. Older guy, younger woman---”
“That’s what I thought at first but now that I read it I don’t know. He’s such a wimp and she’s such a flake. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend two hours in their company so why would I expect an audience to want to either.”
And so, Victims of Duty (Victime du Devoir) was chosen as the vehicle that would bring Myer Masterson back to Broadway. The only problem was that Myer couldn’t find a copy of the script.
“I ordered the script from some cockamamie publisher in France and I got this dog-eared piece of shit,’’ Myer explained, waving a tattered document, “and---and it’s in FRENCH! All the bookstores in the United States claim to be out of the English translation. How can that be?”
After a frustrating week of phone calls and emails he finally got his hands on a copy in English and he started the process of getting the performance rights. He hired a stage manager, Shorty Van Gelder, who he remembered from his early years. He also enlisted the Harris Agency into making casting recommendations and he and Shorty began to interview actors for the rest of the roles in the play. He told Ginny that he was getting a kick out of being on the other side of the audition table, interviewing instead of being interviewed.
Ginny noticed that she and Myer didn’t always agree on his choices---actually on his rejects. He seemed to be turning away actors, men mostly, who appeared, to her, to be perfectly suitable for the various roles. By the second day of interviews Ginny thought she knew what was going on. Myer was turning away any actor who was taller or better looking than him. She didn’t bring it up at dinner that evening knowing he would deny it anyway.
“I’m leaning towards Dayton Harvey to play Choubert,” he said, as he took a bite of salmon, “What do you think?” Dayton Harvey was balding and a bit overweight but a truly gifted actor.
“He would be very good, I’m sure,” Ginny replied.
“Well, I want you to be happy. After all, he’ll be playing your husband.”
“It’s important, Myer, that you’re contented with your choice. You’ll be directing him, not me. Whoever you choose will be just fine.”
The auditions continued on through the week. By the following Monday, Myer had his cast. Lucas Randal Ortiz was the philosopher Nicolas. He would be wearing a big black false beard so Myer wasn’t too concerned about his good looks. Dayton Harvey did indeed secure the
role of Choubert, husband to Madeleine, played by Ginny. The only other female in the cast was Marion Hurley who was cast as The Lady, a mysterious figure that enters and sits in a chair and never speaks. (Not exactly true, she has one line, “It is not Madame but Mademoiselle!”) Myer would be playing The Detective.
One role had not been cast and that was the part of Mallot, the fugitive the detective is searching for. This was because it had not yet been decided whether the character would be shown to the audience simply as a wanted poster or would actually appear in the flesh. That decision would be made at the first production meeting.
“What the hell is this fucking play about, Myer?” This was Dean Rossiter speaking, the former production designer for Stainless who had come out of retirement to design the set for Myer’s return to Broadway. He was sitting at the dining room table in the Masterson loft with the other two designers, along with Myer and his stage manager Shorty. “I’ve read it twice and it makes no sense to me at all.”
“Well, it’s not supposed to make any sense. It’s what’s called absurdist theatre. But it’s actually just kind of like an old fashioned murder mystery. It’s about a detective, that’s me, who comes to this couple’s apartment to ask them about the previous tenant, a guy named Mallot.”
“I understood that much of the plot,” interrupted Tag McPhee who was going to be doing the lights, “but then we get all this shouting and some crazy discussions about the theatre---and then the detective, you, tries to force this Choubert gentleman to remember this former tenant Malware---"
“Mallot,” corrected Myer.
“Mall-low,” corrected Michael Sabine, the costume designer, “I believe the T is silent.”
“Whatever,” continued McPhee, “So, there you are, Myer, pushing stale bread into this guy’s mouth to try and get him to remember someone he has never met---”
“Can I step in here again for a moment?” Sabine said, opening his computer. “I’ve started collecting some research for the costumes and while I was doing that I came across these articles about this play and about Ionesco that might help us all understand this absurdist stuff a little better.”
“I’ll take all the help I can get,” Rossiter confessed, “I’m not ashamed to admit that this play is way beyond me.”
“Well,” continued Sabine, “What I read was that after the horror of World War Two, and the Holocaust and, particularly, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, Ionesco felt that life had become totally absurd. The old plays didn’t show how mad and insane the world really was so he, and several other playwrights, began to create a theatre that turned everything upside down.”
“Okay, Michael, that’s all very interesting,” Rossiter replied, “but what is this play about?”
“I think we should let Myer continue to answer that, as he’s the director,” suggested Sabine with a quiet smile. Myer nodded in agreement and began leafing through his notes.
“Right. So, this is all about how we keep going about our boring lives doing the same boring things again and again without ever questioning why we do these boring things. Every character in this play is doing his “duty.” The husband is doing his civic duty, the wife is doing her wifely duty. As the detective, I’m doing my investigative duty. By the end of the play we are all victims of duty, hence the title. I mean, by the end I get murdered doing my duty, for god’s sake.”
“Okay, I get it,” Rossiter interjected, “You want a boring set that reflects the boring lives of this boring couple and---”
“Not exactly. It should be a comfortable living room that becomes more uncomfortable as the play progresses. Remember that set you did on Stainless for the dream sequence when the doc was having those nightmares?”
“Yeah, that was fun.”
“Well, that’s kind of what I’m looking for, a subtle distortion leading to an absolute nightmare.”
The meeting continued into the afternoon, with Ginny providing lunch and trying to make herself scarce but still eavesdropping from behind the kitchen counter. Myer had moved on to a discussion of the lighting and she listened to him talking to McPhee.
“I think the set should be bloody red by the end of the play. You know, it should sort of just creep up on us slowly so the audience isn’t aware of the change. Oh, and I have another question for you, Tag.”
“Okay, what?” McPhee replied, still mulling over the ‘bloody red light’ suggestion.
“Would it be possible to light me with a follow spot, a very dim follow spot, so that I have this sort of glow?”
“I suppose so, but don’t you think that’ll be distraction?”
“Not if it’s just the right level, you know, like the dimmer is set at minus one, on a scale of ten.”
Ginny was beginning to wonder where this fit into the play. Red lights and a follow spot? But he was the director.
“Michael,” Myer said, turning towards Sabine, ‘Let’s talk costumes.”
“Okay. I have a few sketches to show you on my Apple,” Sabine answered, turning the computer screen around so that it faced Myer. “This is what I thought might work for the character of Madeleine, typical middleclass housewife, beige and gray. And then when she turns into Chobert’s mother she just throws on this shawl---”
“Sexier,” Myer interrupted.
“She should have a sexy edge to her. I mean, there’s a moment when she starts to come on to me.”
“The mother?” Sabine asked, totally confused.
“No, you doofus! Madeleine. We need to play up her attraction to me. Which brings me to my costume. What have you got in mind?”
Sabine scrolled quickly through the drawings of the other characters in the play and stopped when he reached an illustration of a gentleman in a trench coat worn over a three piece suit with a fedora hat tilted rakishly to one side of the actor’s head.
“I thought of the detective being a sort of 007 type, very James Bond.”
“No, no, no, Michael. That’s the way he’s been portrayed in most of the other productions, very cliché. But you’re on the right track in giving him a glamorous look. However, I feel he’s more rough around the edges, more animalistic, more of a he-man. I was thinking of someone like Harrison Ford in Raiders of The Lost Ark, you know, the leather jacket, the boots---
“The whip?” Sabine asked.
“Well, maybe not. Although---”
“I’ll see what I can come up with. Now about the character of Mallot. Have you decided to have him appear alive on stage or just on a poster?”
“I don’t know. I’m kind of torn.”
“Well, I’ll still need an actor to dress even if it’s only for a photo.”
“I know, I know.” Myer turned to the other designers, “What do you guys think?”
“Unless he’ll need some kind of scenic effect I don’t care either way,” answered Rossiter, “Seems it’s more important for Tag and his lighting.”
McPhee nodded and offered a suggestion, “Why not keep your options open and plan on both. If you can afford another actor, that is. Is that possible, Myer?”
“Yeah, of course. Makes sense,” agreed Myer. “Shorty, call Tim and tell him he’s in”
And that’s how Timothy Brielle came on board as the mysterious Monsieur Mallot.
However, all this preproduction planning came to a screeching halt when Myer received some devastating news. There wasn’t one Broadway theatre available for rent for the next fifteen months. Every house was booked solid.
“But not every show will succeed,” Myer argued, “and when one closes we’ll snap up their theatre. We’ll step right in, ready to go.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Myer.” This was coming from Augustus Levine, the business manager and lawyer for Victims of Duty. “For every show opening there is a show already lined up ready to take it’s place. It’s like rush hour at Kennedy airport; planes, stacked on top of each other, waiting to take off,”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Well, my advice is to postpone production until next year or---”
“No way! Time is of the essence! There’s already a buzz about the show but that won’t last if we don’t open soon.”
“Or we could rent an Off-Broadway theatre.”
“The Fallgate is available. We could move in tomorrow. And the rent is much cheaper than a Broadway house.”
“I don’t care if it’s only charging a dollar ninety eight, I’m not ending up in some dirty little hole in the wall!”
“Myer, you know better than that. The Fallgate is a lovely theatre. It was a movie palace back in the day and the owners have kept it in pristine condition.”
“But Gus, my dream has been to get back to Broadway, to stand on a stage in front of a thousand people, not to end up in the Bowery acting for a measly audience of four hundred.”
“The Fallgate is located at Union Square, not the Bowery, as you well know.”
“But I want---”
“I know, I know, but it’s not going to happen, at least not this year. Listen and hear what I’m saying. This turn of events is full of positivity: it’s less expensive, more appropriate for the play you have chosen and you don’t have to delay your opening.”
“But I have the money for an uptown run and---and plenty of backers interested in investing---”
“Myer, listen to me. This is the way it is going to happen. You will open to great success at the Fallgate and, after several months of an impressive Off-Broadway run, you will move uptown to whichever cockamamie Broadway theatre is available and the rest is history!”
“I don’t know---”
“Yes, you do. You know your old uncle Gus is right,” Levine said, giving Myer a big hug, “Now, I’m heading back to the office. I’ve got to change all the contracts. I’ve already alerted the owners of the rights to the play, about the possible change of venue, and they seem to be all okay about it. Some of your actors are not happy, like you, about opening Off Broadway, reduced salary and whatnot, but they’re still on board.”
“Gus, you are strong-arming me---”
“That’s right. No need to thank me. See you later.” And he was off, leaving Myer standing in stunned silence.
The stage of the Fallgate Theatre was set for the first reading of Victims of Duty. A long table, surrounded by folding chairs for the cast and designers, was stage center. The stage manager, Shorty, was setting a script and Equity Union papers in front of each actor’s chair while his assistant was getting the coffee urn hooked up. On a small table toward the rear of the stage stood a model of the set.
One by one the participants arrived and greeted each other, excited to be working. When everyone had shed their overcoats, checked out the set model and obtained their coffee, they took their seats at the table. It was then that Myer made his entrance.
With all the pomp and circumstance of a foreign potentate, he entered from stage left dressed to the tees. He had spent the night before trying on many different looks ranging from disinterested hippie to university intellectual. Ginny finally told him to make up his mind and so he settled for the guise of an elegant artist with a rust red suede jacket, a sky-blue dress shirt, beige silk slacks and a royal blue ascot. Ginny nixed the beret.
After a lot of kissy face and slaps on the back he sat himself down and the rehearsal began. Myer had everyone introduce themselves and then Dean Rossiter talked about the set. Shorty had the actors fill out the appropriate papers and reminded them that they had to elect a Union representative. Finally, Myer talked briefly about what he wanted to have happen with the play.
“The audience needs to believe they are safe and sound and then suddenly I want them to feel they are being taken for a roller coaster ride. It will be our job to surprise them again and again. It’s as if we’ve trapped them in an insane asylum. Okay?” Myer asked, as he opened his red leather-bound script.
“But enough with the concept nonsense, let’s get started. Now, I was tempted to change the location of the play from Paris, France to Paris, Texas---you know, Americanize it, make it more accessible to audiences here in this country. But after some serious consideration, (after a horrified Ginny convinced him it would be a big mistake) I realized the play is so French that it would not transfer easily into a Southwestern setting. However, we may make a few adjustments as we go along. For example, I want to change the word concierge (he pronounced it cone-see-urge) to manager.” Most audience members aren’t familiar with that French term for landlady---and one other thing----please check your script for any reference to me as young, fair and blond. While I can easily pass for being in my thirties I am not a youngster. And as you can see from my olive skin I am not at all pale complexioned nor am I about to bleach my brunette locks. So, would you please go through your scripts and scratch out any of those lines describing me incorrectly. Okay, let’s start with the opening scene. Ladies and gentlemen, the adventure begins.”
Little did Myer know what an adventure it would be, or should I say misadventure? I witnessed much of what happened in the following weeks because I was a member of the Victims of Duty company but I’m afraid I’ll have to remain anonymous. I don’t want any hassles with lawyers and suits and whatever. All I can say is it was an experience I will never forget.
The first week went by relatively smoothly although Myer began to discover how difficult it was to direct a scene in which he was also one of the characters. The problem was that, after a short opening scene, minus his character, he made his entrance and he never left the stage again. He began to have to depend on Shorty, the stage manager, to keep him on track. In all honesty, Shorty became the unofficial co-director, although Myer would never admit to that.
The first sign of trouble was when Myer started noticing than Tim Brielle was spending a lot of time chatting up Ginny during the union breaks. Tim had been hired to play the mysterious Mallot, a non-speaking role, and therefor Myer hadn’t paid him much notice until now. Unfortunately, he became aware that Tim was somewhat good looking and was about three inches taller than himself. At dinner that evening he brought the subject up.
“I noticed that you and Tim have become kind of chummy the last few days,” he mentioned, as he took a bite of his salad.
“He’s a nice guy and he has some really funny theatre stories,” Ginny replied.
“I’ll bet he does,” Myer said, with a dry laugh, “He’s the king of funny stories and there are quite a few funny ones about him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for one thing, he’s a lush and a womanizer.”
“Where did you pick up that information?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s common knowledge! And he’s married.”
“Myer, I don’t want to sleep with him. Give me a break. We were just passing the time.”
“Yeah, he’s was making a pass alright.”
“Why Mr. Masterson, I do believe you are jealous,” Ginny replied in her best Scarlet O’Hara voice.
“I’m just trying to protect you and the production. I can’t handle any distractions right now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to direct a scene when you two are canoodling in the wings?”
“Canoodling? My heavens, where did you dig up that dusty old term?”
Myer threw his fork down and stood up from the table. “Are you making fun of me?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that you’re creating something out of nothing. I’m going to continue talking to whomever I wish, including Tim Brielle, and, for your information, we’ve only been conversing during the break, not while you’ve been directing.”
“Well, I think a better use of your and Tim’s break time would be for the two of you to learn your lines.”
“Tim has no lines and I know mine, which is more than I can say for somebody else who shall remain nameless.”
Myer began to turn bright red and Ginny knew she had gone too far. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I know how difficult it is to wear all those hats; producer, actor, director. Please forgive me.”
But forgiveness was not in Myer’s vocabulary and so he marked a permanent demerit behind Ginny Macpherson’s name in his imaginary book of slights.
Things began to really heat up when Lucas Randal Ortiz, as the character of Nicolas, began to question some of Myer’s directorial choices.
“I’m sorry Myer, but there is no way I would sit down at this moment,” he said as he remained standing, “At this point in the play I’m trying to keep your character, the detective, from choking Chobert to death with those crusts of bread.”
“Which is what I’m supposed to be doing, you ass, and you’re getting in my way!” shouted Myer as he grabbed Luis and pushed him aside. The actor fell against the chair on which Marion Hurley was seated and, after apologizing to Mademoiselle, he exited the stage, picked up his coat and left the theatre. Myer screamed, to the empty seats in the empty house, that Lucas was fired.
We were all too shocked and embarrassed to do anything, but Shorty, thankfully, stepped in quickly and called for a ten-minute break. He took Myer to one of the dressing rooms and, I don’t know what was said but the next day Lucas was back at rehearsal. Myer acted as though nothing had happened but the chill in the air was palpable. When we got to the scene that had caused the ruckus Lucas held his ground and did not sit down. To his credit, Myer did not challenge him but you could see the anger in his eyes.
As the days progressed, it seems no one was exempt from the reach of his ire. Marion Hurley was accused of upstaging him; “Just sit still and quit batting those false eyelashes!” and even dependable Dayton Harvey, as Ginny’s husband, was singled out; “Don’t mumble. You sound like a defective garbage disposal.” Dayton tried to explain that it was hard to speak clearly with Myer stuffing crusts of bread into his mouth but the director was having none of it.
But it was Timothy Brielle who received the most unwanted attention. At every rehearsal Myer would find some new problem with his performance; ‘For god’s sake, all you have to do is stand there and look forlorn! Right now, you look like you’re posing for Gentleman’s Quarterly.’
Ginny knew what was really going on and she finally decided to confront Myer about it when they got back to the loft. They were both very tired from a week of rehearsing and ended up eating cold leftovers at the kitchen table. Ginny had poured them both a large glass of white wine.
“Myer,” she began, “I can see you’re really stressed out. We can all see that.”
“And everyone in the cast is generously giving you some slack, even though---"
“Well, you’ve been pretty rough on everybody, especially Timothy.”
“Wait a minute! All I’m trying to do is get some kind of performance out of Mr. Gorgeous. He just stands there like a department store manikin.”
“I thought that’s what he was supposed do, to be a vision of a poor abused missing person.”
“Yeah, but he at least needs to look as if he’s still alive. Anyway, because of today’s miserable rehearsal, I’ve decided to give him his notice---”
“We’ll put up a wanted poster of him, like it says in the script, and pay him for the use of his image. That’ll work better anyway.”
“Myer, you can’t fire him just because you don’t like him, just because you think he’s hitting on me.”
“Is he hitting on you? Because it sure as hell looks like something is going on. However, that’s not why I’m letting him go. The audience would be so confused when this guy shows up, out of nowhere, dressed in prison stripes and standing there like a deaf mute.”
“Sweetheart, this is the theatre of the absurd. Anyone coming to see the play will be expecting strange things to happen.”
“Ginny, I’ve made up my mind. Brielle is out. End of discussion.”
From this point on rehearsals became a nightmare. It got so you found yourself dreading to come to work. You never knew when Myer would explode into a screaming fit and who would be his next victim. No one was safe. He even began to pick on Ginny, who has to be the sweetest young lady on this planet.
“For god’s sake, stand up straight!” “Why can’t you look at me when you say that line?” “Who the hell are you supposed to be, Princess Diana?” “It’s never too late for you to change careers.”
We all knew that she and Myer were an item and living together and I could only imagine what their evenings were like after a day of such abusive behavior.
“Myer, do you love me? Do you even like me?”
“That’s a stupid question. Why would you even ask me such a stupid question?”
“Because of the way you’ve been treating me in rehearsal.”
“I don’t treat you any differently than I do anyone else---”
“Right! And the way you are treating all of us is---is outrageous!”
“It’s called directing! It’s what directors do!”
“It’s called bullying! There is no excuse for you verbally and---and physically attacking your actors who are only trying to do their best to---”
“Their best?! If that’s their best then I might as well throw in the towel!”
“Whoa! Hold on. Is that what this is all about? Are you looking for a way out, a way to cancel this production? Blame it on the actors?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t forget, I’m one of those actors.”
“Myer, this has got to change. Marion is planning on calling a meeting to discuss reporting your behavior to the union.”
“Okay, alright, tell me when. I’ll be there---as a fellow actor!”
The meeting never happened. This was due to Myer having reached the scene in the play, his scene, where he had a three-page monologue. Any direction for his ‘fellow actors’ was put on hold while he struggled to make some sense out of all the words he had to speak.
“The stage directions indicate that this god damned speech should be recorded and played over a loudspeaker,” he explained to Ginny during one of their after-rehearsal suppers, “It’s supposed to be the voice of Chobert’s deceased father but can you imagine the audience sitting there listening to my voice droning on and on while nothing is happening on stage. I think it’ll be better if I actually transform into his father, kinda like you do when you turn into his mother. At least you get to do it on stage.”
“That’s a lot to memorize, Myer, when you could just as easily read it into a tape recorder.”
How do I describe the next two days? Imagine that you’re in the dentist’s office and you’ve been waiting for hours and hours and then you’re in the chair and he’s drilling and drilling and it goes on for days. The Novocain has worn off and there is no end in sight. That’s what it was like.
Myer went through each sentence of his speech, repeating them, changing the inflection, cursing the playwright and pacing back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast obediently stood or sat in their assigned positions on stage. However, after several hours, even the hardiest ‘fellow actor’ had found a place to sit down. Marion, Mademoiselle, had fallen asleep, Luis was staring at his cell phone and Dayton was whispering in the ear of his onstage wife Ginny.
“Can’t you convince him to stage this scene, for now, without us? All we will be doing eventually in performance is standing around.”
“I tried but he said he needs to feel the other actors listening to him.”
“Could I have some quiet please!” Myer shouted, as he stamped his foot. It reminded Ginny of how her five-year-old nephew acted when he was denied ice cream. “It’s hard enough to try and remember these mother fucking lines without one of you nimrods whispering!”
In the end, Myer dropped his idea of saying the speech live on stage and, following the wishes of the playwright, recorded it. This was not because he believed this was the way it should be done, but simply because he couldn’t memorize the ‘mother fucking lines.’ While it was secretly a relief to not be struggling with the words, as he had been for two long days, it presented a new problem. What to do on stage since nothing was happening during the fifteen minutes his recorded speech was playing. Short of choreographing a dance number, Myer could think of nothing that made sense. Sit and stare into space? Have a make-out scene with the detective and Madeleine? Open a bottle of wine and raise a toast to Ionesco?
What Myer eventually settled on brings us to a discussion of The Bread. The play asked for the detective to badger the character of Chobert into going deep into his past and revealing what he knew about the mysterious previous tenant of his, and his wife’s, apartment. It is revealed that Chobert never met the man and that he knows nothing about him or his current location. This doesn’t stop the detective from attacking the poor man and one of his methods of torture was to stuff crusts of stale bread into Chobert’s mouth. Myer decided to continue the stuffing through his long recorded monologue.
The first time they worked on the beginning of the bread stuffing scene (which starts two thirds of the way through the play and continues on to the end} the prop crew provided the actors with a basket of stale crusts of French bread. It sat on the table and when Myer began pushing pieces of the bread into Dayton’s mouth two things started to happen. First, you couldn’t understand a word the actor said and, secondly, he began to cry from the pain of the sharp, dry crusts scratching his lips and mouth. After a break, to put some lip balm on Chobert’s sore mouth, the bread had been moistened to soften it up and the scene continued. By the end of the play Dayton sat in a circle of bread crumbs, like an overweight pigeon, with bits of soggy crust clinging to his clothes and hanging off his chin. He felt as miserable as he looked. Myer wanted to run the whole sequence again but, mercifully, Shorty called an end to the rehearsal, as there were only a few minutes left.
The next day the basket on the table, in the onstage apartment of Chobert and Madeleine, contained cut up slices of Wonder Bread, soft and wimpy but, at least, gentler on the mouth. It also didn’t stick to Dayton’s clothes and landed on the floor and furniture in doughy lumps that were easy to clean up after the rehearsal. But even with these improvements, the sequence was a nightmare for poor Dayton who had to try to not choke to death, to speak his lines with a mouth jammed full of bread and to survive very rough treatment from Myer. Myer didn’t hold back.
“I don’t know who you are,” Ginny confessed, as they entered the loft later that night. “I thought you were this generous and funny guy who loved the theatre---”
“I do,” Myer answered as he switched on the lights and headed for the refrigerator, “I am.”
“I’m beginning to think you only love yourself. The way you treat---”
“Wait a minute! Is this because of Dayton and the bread thing? It’s in the script, babe. I’m only following the directions.”
Ginny sat down on one of the counter stools. “That doesn’t mean you have to grab his head or shake him like a rag doll! Geez, Myer, I don’t think I want to be around you if this is the way you are most of the time. This is not the nice guy I met in acting class.”
“Don’t be like that, babe,” Myer said as he poured two glasses of his favorite Cloudy Bay’s Te Ko. “I need you. I’m just a little stressed out. You have made such a difference in my life. We make a great team.”
“No we don’t,” Ginny replied, refusing the glass of wine he was handing her, “Admit it, Myer, you’re a one man show. I’m just your accessory, your ‘babe,’ and, by the way, I would appreciate it if you would stop calling me that.”
“But you are my b---gal. I mean, I’m crazy about you.”
“The only one crazy here is me for moving in with you. I mean it was very generous of you and giving me a role in your production, I never expected that. But it was a mistake on my part. So, after the show opens I’ll be moving out.”
We all noticed a change in the atmosphere around Myer and Ginny as we got closer to the opening. Neither one was speaking to the other except when the script called for them to address each other. In the earlier rehearsals, when lunch time rolled around, they would go off together like an old married couple and Ginny would give Myer notes which he would immediately either discard or implement. Now, he stormed offstage and locked himself in a dressing room where he would dine alone. Ginny acted as though nothing was amiss but you could see that she was not doing too well. She seemed to have lost weight and was very quiet.
Tech rehearsal was a nightmare. Myer complained about everything. The set was too humble and needed to be more glamourous. The lighting wasn’t bright enough; “When I asked for red I expected blood red not pussy pink!” The sound effects were all wrong; “They’re supposed to be ominous. They’re about as scary as a baby’s lullaby!” Two long days of his ranting and raving had Shorty Van Gelder and the designers ready to strangle him.
“I used to like him,” Marion, Mademoiselle, whispered to Dayton, as they sat in the darkened auditorium, “when he played the friendly sidekick.”
“Yeah. I guess it shows you what a good actor he was. Fooled us all.”
Dress rehearsal was even worse, if that was possible. He hated every costume including his own. Ginny’s---“Too dowdy.” Dayton’s---"looks like a fucking bus driver.” Luis---"too upscale.” Marion---"What is that? Is she going to the prom?!”
What he did like, however, was the wanted poster of Tim Brielle---baggy convict uniform with horizontal black stripes. “Perfect.”
“Mike, we discussed my costume in great detail, remember,” Myer pointed out to Michael Sabine, as he stood looking in the mirror, “Rough and masculine, kinda like Han Solo---”
“I believe you said Indiana Jones,” replied Sabine, close to tears, “You saw all the sketches I did and you signed off on every one of them.”
“Whatever. This schmatta that I’m standing in right now looks like something a 42nd street pimp would wear.”
“Fuck you!” shouted Sabine as he fled the dressing room weeping.
When we got to the first preview a few changes had been made in the set and the lighting but there wasn’t enough time to come up with completely new costumes. Sabine did his best to make some adjustments on the existing outfits, flashy jewelry for Ginny and a smoking jacket for Dayton, but Marion, Lucas and Myer stayed basically the same. Down deep he knew that what he had designed was what the director had asked for no matter what Myer, the madman, said. Shorty, in consoling Michael over the phone, assured him that Myer would be far too busy during the next few days to pay any attention to the costumes. He was right.
There is an old adage in the theatre that goes something like this: “Lousy dress rehearsal, great opening performance.” It was kind of the reversal in the case of Victims of Duty: “Passable
dress rehearsal, terrible first preview.” Myer was livid. After everyone had removed their makeup and changed out of their costume, the cast assembled out in the house for their notes. Now you need to understand that it was impossible for Myer to take notes since he was onstage through almost the entire play. Shorty did his best to hurriedly scribble down some observations, in between calling sound and light cues, but Myer ignored what the stage manager had written.
“As you know the director’s job is to be an objective eye and just because I’m up there onstage, in my capacity as an actor, doesn’t mean I don’t see what’s going on. And what I saw tonight was SHIT! Oh, my god! It was so bad I don’t blame some of the audience members for leaving early. I mean, did you notice that by the time I got to my curtain call, half the house was empty?!
Now I kept a lot of mental notes which I jotted down just now in my dressing room. I’ll start with you Marion. You were late making your entrance. You left us out there with egg on our face. Lucas, for fuck’s sake pick up the pace on all your speeches! They’re so bloody boring, the sooner they’re over the better. Ginny, when you, so called, transform into the old lady I don’t believe it for a moment. It’s time to go back to acting school. And Dayton, speaking of acting school, where did you study, MacDonald University? God, what a disaster! Tonight was like amateur night in Tijuana.”
(Of course, Myer didn’t mention the two times he forgot his lines and had to leave the stage to have a quick look at his script.)
“And Lucas, when you stab me, do it like you mean it. I know it’s a fake knife but right now it’s like you’re tickling me. It’s so gay! (Lucas was very tempted, at that moment, to find a real knife.) “Okay, everyone, that’s it. Go home and get some sleep. Maybe that’ll help put some energy back into your work tomorrow.”
The cast got up and, after putting on their coats, started walking up the aisles like wounded soldiers.
“Miss Macpherson,” Myer said, halting Ginny at the lobby exit, “Would you please join me for a moment. I have something I need to discuss with you.”
Ginny, with great reluctance, slowly returned to where Myer was standing. Ever since she announced her intention of moving out they hadn’t traveled together, eaten together or talked to one another. She had called for a taxi for the short trip to the loft and knew it was waiting outside.
“What is it Myer? My ride is waiting.”
“I want to run an idea by you---”
“If it is about us, I’m not interested.”
“No, no! It concerns the play---specifically that fucking three page monolog.”
“What about it?”
“It’s deadly. When it starts, the play comes to a screeching halt. I mean, when I recorded the speech I tried to give it some variety but now it just sounds like the announcer at Grand Central Station, ‘Boston Express now arriving on track 17.’ It’s awful. The audience has nothing to look at. The cast, you all stand there like zombies while I’m stuffing fucking bread into Dayton’s fat face but that gets boring after a while. I had Tag do that fancy light show but that just makes you look like Zombies at a disco.”
“Where is this going, Myer? My cab is waiting.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll cut to the chase. What do you think about you appearing nude during the speech?”
“WHAT?!” Ginny shrieked, spinning around, ready to leave.
“Hold on. Hear me out, please,” Myer said, grabbing her arm, which she angrily pulled away from him. “What if you went off stage at the start of the scene, got undressed and then came back on, halfway through, wrapped in your old lady shawl and then you dropped the shawl? Kinda gives an Oedipal twist to the scene, right?”
“You are truly insane,” Ginny hissed through her teeth, “First of all, what you are suggesting makes no sense at all. It has nothing to do with the play and secondly, it’s insulting, abusive and---and sexist! I can’t believe I thought you cared for me. That you, the big theatre artist, who was going to make his mark on Broadway, would stoop to such a--- You are nothing more than a dirty old man. No. You’re not a man. You’re a spoiled little brat, just a victim of arrested development.” She turned away and started walking quickly up the aisle.
“We can continue this back to the apartment,” Myer shouted, sounding a little panicky.
“No we can’t. I won’t be there when you get back,” Ginny replied, “I’m leaving.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“Marion has kindly invited me to stay with her until I find a place. Good bye, Myer.”
“Ginny, babe, wait! What about the play?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be onstage tomorrow night---with my clothes on,” she replied as she pushed through the auditorium doors and rushed out through the lobby to her waiting taxi.
Opening night rolled around, as it is wont to do whether you’re ready or not. After one tech rehearsal, two dress rehearsals and five previews it was time to make it official. Victims of Duty was going to open and, as Myer put it, “it is going to knock their fucking socks off!” The rest of the cast was not so sure. Friends of the actors, who attended some of the preview performances, used words like interesting and phrases like that was really something and lots of good work on that stage which are known, in the theatre community, as a code for what a turkey.
Amazingly, the opening night ambled along with no crippling disasters. There were laughs in the right spots (a couple in the wrong), only a few audience members left before the final curtain and the applause during the one and only curtain call was polite. However, there was no demand for ‘director! director! Speech! Speech!’ much to Myer’s dismay.
The theater cleared out fairly quickly and only one person showed up backstage to knock on Myer’s dressing room door; Augustus Levine, the company manager.
“Well, you did it, my boy. Congratulations.”
“Thanks, Gus. It’s been tough but now it will only be smooth sailing.”
“Right. You ready to go to the party?” Levine had booked Pierre Loti at Union Square.
“Yes sir! Just let get my jacket.”
“And Myer, I had Shorty post the closing notice---”
“WHAT! Why the hell would you do that? We’ve got a hit---”
“Calm down, calm down. It’s standard procedure just in case we don’t make it and we don’t want to end up having to pay out salaries even after the show closes. Understand? After two weeks we take down the notice and we keep on running your very successful production.”
“And we will, I can feel it,” Myer said, putting his arm around Gus’s shoulders, “Come on old man. Let’s go get drunk!”
The party didn’t last very long. The TV and internet reviews started to come in and, with each one, the temperature in the room lowered. One by one the actors and the crew excused themselves and exited what had now become a funeral parlor. Myer sat with Gus and Shorty and ordered his fifth whiskey sour. He didn’t rant and rave, as would have been expected, but only mumbled one word over and over, “No---no---no---”
The reviews were not kind. The same words kept popping up, confusing, amateurish, boring, deadly, unbearable. Only one reviewer spoke in a semi positive tone; a noble but failed effort.
The final death blow came at dawn when Myer learned that Preston Grandfield, the number one critic from the number one newspaper in New York was reviewing Victims of Duty. Myer had been informed that the second string critic, Roland Smyth, had been assigned Victims as was usual with Off Broadway productions. Preston Grandfield only reviewed Broadway or special international productions.
“Smyth was there, tonight! I saw him!” Myer exclaimed, rubbing his face so hard it was becoming red.
“Myer, Myer, stop it! Listen to me. Grandfield snuck into one of the previews last week,” Gus explained, trying to pry Myer’s hands away from his face, “We didn’t want to worry you so we didn’t say anything. Now, what evidentially happened is he preempted Smyth, as is his prerogative, and is writing the review himself. In a perverse way you should feel honored.”
The reason Myer had become so hysterical is that Preston Grandfield was, and is, known for being viciously honest and wickedly funny in his criticisms. Not one play has ever survived after receiving a thumbs down from Grandfield.
We Are All Victims of Duty
Opening last night at the beautiful Fallgate theatre was the first, and probably the last, New York production of Eugene Ionesco’s brilliant send up of the petit bourgeoisie, Victims of Duty (Victimes du Devoir.) This early play of Ionesco’s, one of the founding fathers of the Theatre of The Absurd, was his favorite and I’m sure he would have been turning over in his crypt if he had watched what stumbled across the stage last evening.
Produced, directed and acted (more on that later) by Myer Masterson, it looked more like a Nathan Lane comedy instead of Ionesco’s wicked deconstruction of the tired drawing room genre found in conventual theatre. Ionesco, who died recently at the age of 84, was a French/Romanian playwright who lived through two bloody world wars. Observing that humankind continued to live complacent, mundane lives while all around them genocide, fascism, corruption and hundreds of other horrifying social atrocities existed, he began to put that absurdity into his dramas. For his plays he created characters that were simply puppets that spouted clichés, non sequiturs and platitudes while living in nightmarish situations that made no sense.
Victims of Duty is basically a detective story. An investigator arrives and questions a couple about a previous tenant. He starts out courteously but eventually becomes a relentless bully. A philosopher enters talking about logic and contradiction. A strange woman appears and seats herself as if to watch the unfolding drama. As the detective becomes more aggressive, shoving crusts of bread down the throat of the husband, the philosopher stabs the detective three times and takes over the interrogation as the play ends.
The cast of Mr. Masterson’s production, with one exception, was first rate but they were totally sabotaged by the direction, or I should say non-direction. Ginny Macpherson, as Madeleine, the wife, was lovely to look at but had nothing to do but stare at her husband Chobert, played competently by Dayton Harvey. Lucas Randal Ortiz, as Nicolas the philosopher, spoke eloquently but for some reason was always turning his back to the audience. Marion Hurley, as The Lady, lucked out in that all she had to do was to sit in silence. Her only line brought about the one honest laugh of the evening. When addressed as Madame she replied, “I am not Madame, but Mademoiselle.”
Admittedly, this play, like most of the Theatre of The Absurd genus, is not easy to direct. Why Mr. Masterson, who has had no previous directorial experience, would choose to mount such a difficult work is beyond me. I’m afraid Masterson, a TV actor, known mostly for his role as Louie Kaplan on the series Stainless, wore too many hats and has failed at filing at least two of them. His direction, as mentioned earlier, was non-existent. As to his acting---oh dear.
Imagine, if you can, a large lump of a man, dressed as if he were on safari, stomping around on stage, yelling at the top of his lungs. Somehow, by what magical technology I do not understand, he actually seemed to glow but it was not with the inner glow of genius. Instead, it was as if he was getting ready to sing a solo in an amateur production of The Desert Song. His acting, if you could call it that, consisted of posing and posturing, strutting about the set like he was a dashing leading man and not the frighteningly determined detective described in the script.
In his death scene, which rivaled that of Bottom’s comic turn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he spoke these final words; ‘I am---a Victim---of Duty.’ At that moment I realized that the audience and I had all been victims, as well. Sadly, many of the first nighters leaving the theatre, believing that they had seen an example of the Theatre of The Absurd, decided that if that was what it was all about they certainly never wanted to see another absurdist play ever again. What a shame!
(Victims of Duty closed the day after opening.)
Ginny Macpherson went on to appear in several Broadway productions. She was nominated for a Tony for her role in The Angel Eater. She is married to actor Timothy Brielle and they have a daughter Maddy.
Dayton Henry has a reoccurring role as Father Maguire in the Fox series Sinner’s Alley.
Lucas Randal Ortiz has appeared in several important films. The latest, Diego’s Way won him a Golden Globe award.
Marion Hurley can be seen as the matriarch of the Gordon family on the ABC daytime series The Secret Hours.
Myer Masterson runs Louie’s Bar and Grill at the Peckerwood Amusement Park where he appears regularly as Louie Kaplan, everyone’s best buddy.
Myer lost all his investment in the production of Victims of Duty. Contrary to his statement, that he had a lot of backers interested in investing, no one else participated in the financing of the play. As his business manager, Gus Levine, pointed out, Myer had violated the first rule of producing, which is Never use your own money. Masterson sold his So Ho loft and moved back to New Jersey. Eventually, he pitched the idea of Louie’s Bar and Grill to Peckerwood Amusement Associates and they agreed to lease him the recently defunct Outback Steak House premises in their amusement park in North Carolina. As Myer Masterson, he lost his Broadway dream but as Louie Kaplan he found a place in which to bask in his former glory.
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