Thursday, April 29, 2010

Get Down And Give Me Twenty! (Fall: 1989)

Whenever anyone else in the cast told you to you had to drop and do twenty pushups.

I was finally going to be directed by Kimber Wheelock in a full production. I'd done a staged reading and a ten minute clown piece. Which, when you analyze it, is hilarious: a clown piece rehearsed using The Method.

For the uninitiated, The Method is a technique whereby actors do not fabricate anything, they are not pretending. They use their specific history and personality to re-create true emotional states that (hopefully) match up well with the scene in question.

But clowns? We all had a few good laughs over that one. What sense memory recall do you use to figure out why you throw a bucket of confetti? To honk a horn while grabbing a girl-clown butt?

"Biloxi Blues" was announced as the first production of my junior year. This play was already famous and the movie had come out that summer. I knew I wanted to play Eugene Morris Jerome, the narrator. I felt confident that I could kill that part.

I got the part. Kimber and I worked very well together in his acting classes. He was notoriously prickly and impatient but I never felt the sting of his acerbic disdain. I talked back, I told him he was wrong, I pushed. It annoyed him sometimes but I think he respected me for it.

The play involved many scenes where the punishment given out was to do any number of pushups. One poor character had to squeeze out a whole slew of them. But we all began to do them in solidarity and all got into pretty good shape pretty fast. If you can't afford a gym and want to get in shape, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO...PUSHUPS AND SITUPS.

The play is part of a trilogy that follows this character (ostensibly Neil Simon himself) from Brooklyn in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" to WWII in "Biloxi Blues" and back to NY in "Broadway Bound".

I don't think Neil Simon gets his just due. This trilogy is not just another group of mildly amusing nostalgia plays. These are worthy of the time capsule. In the movie "Hustle and Flow" the main character is talking about a mix-tape put out by his rap hero. He says that everything in the world will turn to dust, everything will crumble. And if the people of the future try to reconstruct Memphis, if they want to know what it was like for HIM, all they have to do is play that mix-tape.

If the imaginary people of the future need to know what life was like in the 1940's in New York, if they need to know what the world was like just before the devastation of WWII, if they need to clue in to what the Jewish people in the free world were going through, all they need do is read these plays.

The cast was set and we started rehearsing. It was like butter. The play is perfect. It creates your performance without you knowing it. I barely remember staging it. This may sound redundant by this point but the simple barracks set that the design team constructed was simply perfect. It somehow was real and suggestive all at the same time.

In one scene the GI's visit a whorehouse. A sliding set was built so that when we set out on this lascivious weekend furlough a giant bed appeared almost out of nowhere. A USO dance was hinted at with a bit of bunting draped across the front of the barracks over some chairs. Elegant and practical, the set did nothing to distract from the narrative, which I think is not as easy as it looks to pull off. If the designers got enamored with showing off their period savvy it would pull focus from the journey that these characters are on.

A former URI student who was now living and working in New York City was cast as the gruff Sergeant. Eric Lutes, a fantastic actor, went on to a fine career in film and TV, most notably as Del on the hit series "Caroline In The City". I'd seen him act with my sister a few years prior in "Picnic" and was intimidated by his good-looks and talent. All of us were and this separation created the perfect tension the play needs.

The age difference wasn't as great as it perhaps is supposed to be, but that had the odd effect of making the mentally ill Sergeant an even more tragic character. He was so young and yet so profoundly disturbed and scarred by his combat history...a man old before his time.

Everyone had recently seen the film starring Broderick and Walken that had been a minor hit. Of course Hollywood fucked up the perfect structure of the play. Because Broderick and Walken were big movie stars, they rejiggered the final scenes to force the two of them into the conflict that had been building between the Sergeant and Epstein. This had the effect of waiting for a grand finale in a fireworks display and getting a dud. Forcing the narrative onto the main character and narrator robbed him of his status as an observer. The whole thrust of the play is that you have to get INVOLVED. No one is free to remain neutral. Which, although it is never overtly discussed, is most certainly a thematic dagger Simon is throwing at the world that stood by and watched millions get murdered.

Thankfully we were doing the play and not the movie.

I still remember the first moment when I addressed the audience. The scene opens on a train headed to basic training. Good natured bickering is slowly turning into something a bit more serious. After a few minutes I turn to the audience and say something snide and hilarious about one of the other characters.

It was like a bomb had gone off. When you break that fourth wall in the hands of a genius like Simon it is as if you are literally tickling hundreds of feet at once. They simply could not get over the fact that I was TALKING to them. Every time I turned my head to look at them it was like a mind meld.

To my way of thinking, this production embodied everything that works about The Method. There were no forced notes, no pushing. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention a valid criticism from Mitchell that I did not have a "Jewish" or "Brooklyn" I'd have taken it upon myself to cultivate it but Kimber didn't insist so it was never even an option). While that may have been an inadvertent false note by omission, all of the behavior exhibited in the play was natural, relaxed and fully realized.

David Fraioli, he of "As Datchery I Did My Bit" played Epstein, the determined antagonist of the bullheaded Sergeant. If he'd done this performance in New York he'd have been a movie star within six months. This play hinges around an intimate monologue his character has that perfectly illustrates the prejudice and ignorance at the heart of many Army interactions. The 550 seat theater shrunk to the size of the space between two people as he told it to me. I'll never forget it.

We knocked that play out of the park.

I was living Down The Line at the time, which meant in a rented house down near the ocean. We had a giant cast party that involved the entire cast lip syncing to 1940's songs as a USO band. Over two weeks nearly 3,000 people saw the show so I spent the next couple of months on campus experiencing the only true fame I'd ever know.

At least so far mo-fos! I'm doin' pushups again, look out!

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