I know I've been lucky in my theater life. There were a couple of sub-par shows at URI, shows that didn't pan out the way anyone would have liked. There was one short-lived disaster at Looking Glass Theater that got shut down almost immediately. But for the most part I went from one fantastic show to the next, culminating in my NYC debut in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore'.
The Bell Curve was about to even shit out in a hurry.
At the time, being cast in 'Angel Wings' seemed like a coup of sorts. It was a new play written by Murray Schisgal who'd won a Tony, co-written 'Tootsie', and still co-owned a production company with Dustin Hoffman. He was in his mid-seventies but had a new play ready to go.
For the past year I'd been studying with a fantastic acting teacher named Sam Schacht. He had taught my sister at the New School Actor's Studio program which James Lipton has brought to the world via the Bravo specials. Sam taught a private class and I signed up. His studio was affiliated with a theater company, The 42nd Street Workshop.
They did a cold reading series and fostered new playwrights. I began frequenting their Monday night gatherings and did many readings of both classics and new works. I'd turned down a role in a play they were doing that would eventually turn into the 'Finding Neverland' movie. I went to a rehearsal and realized that I'd be pretending to be eight years old, probably wearing knickers and talking in a cute little boy Cockney accent and fled the scene. When it made its way onto the big screen I had a little moment of regret but I figured they'd probably get a REAL eight year old English kid. Which they did.
But 'Angel Wings' came along and I auditioned for it anyway.
I thought this script was cute and had some funny moments. It was absurd and I liked that it just WENT for it. A wealthy businessman who has alienated his whole family dies and comes back as an ugly misshapen hunchback. He has to get everyone that he fucked over to love him in spite of his outward appearance, to make them love him for his soul or he will be damned eternally. Funny, right?
Well, it might have been. But this production was about as wrong-headed as any creative enterprise I've ever heard of.
First of all, Schisgal insisted that it was not a farce but that it was a romantic comedy. In spite of the fact that there wasn't really a romance at the center of it and that characters did absolutely absurd things for reasons that were never quite clear.
For example, I played the young son of this mogul. I am obsessed with insects. I wear safari clothing and carry a butterfly net with me at all times. I fall in love with the young French woman who my father was romancing. In the scenes that I have with her I begin to talk with a French ACCENT. Not actual French, but English with a French accent. Now, this makes NO sense on the surface of it. If I wanted to woo her I wouldn't speak in a way that might make her feel self-conscious. So why do I speak with a French accent? The only plausible way to play the scenes is that I am so smitten that I have gone a bit bonkers, that my sanity has crumbled a bit. But, no...Murray insisted that I was merely in love with her.
Now, I of course bucked at this direction. And, keep in mind that Murray was never on the scene. He merely told the director what he wanted and what we were supposed to do. He didn't seem to understand his own play.
This made rehearsals excruciating. The director was trying to dig deep into the words, as if this were some Arthur Miller satire, or a long lost Tennessee Williams dramedy. We did improvs that lasted upwards of thirty minutes with actors just rambling on, jerking off to each other and for each other. I would leave rehearsal fuming but somehow still thinking that I needed to do the play. If something like this happened today I wouldn't be back the next DAY.
We rehearsed FOREVER. The dread in my stomach just grew as we ground whatever comic life existed in the script beneath our boot heels. Pretty soon we were in the space and I was wearing my costume and it seemed as if my worst fears were being realized. I was dressed like a Boy Scout, speaking in a French accent for no apparent reason, and doing pratfalls that barely made literal sense.
The sinking feeling in my stomach grew as we approached opening. There was a comedy black hole taking shape on that stage and no audience would survive the gravitational murder of it.
Now, often times the natural insecurity of the actor combined with the stress of mounting a production will cause bouts of self doubt. Performance anxiety will invade but that will be lessened as you delve deeper into how/why you are executing the piece at hand.
That was not how 'Angel Wings' went down. The further we got into the process the greater the distance we created between us and any semblance of entertainment. Shows like this are not just BAD. There is something to be said for throwing a play up on its feet and falling down with it. But then there is a special kind of production that enters some sickly realm of achievement, an inverse of excitement, a dead spot.
The audience is minding their own business, going about their lives, when suddenly you turn out the house lights on them and they very quickly realize that they are in quicksand up to their noses and they can barely breathe.
I have never felt that kind of hostility from an audience. The silence was AGGRESSIVE. Within five minutes of the first line a blanket of stoicism was laid over the gathered assembly like a sheet over a corpse. They could not wait for it to be over. This was a fait accompli before I ever MADE MY ENTRANCE.
Once I did, things got worse because my character is the most farcical aspect of a play that had been drained of any sense of lightness or farce. So what should have been one more oddball in the oddball soup seemed like the desperate act of a street mime - "Oh, they don't like me in a box with my little beret and white face and leotard so I'm going to GO UP TO THEM AND MAKE THEM INTERACT WITH ME."
When you can hear an audience moving around in their seats you know there is trouble. If they are engaged they sit still. And if there is movement the laughter will mask it. But if you can hear trousers against wood, heels on floor, hands rubbing necks, you are DOOMED. And we were DOOMED.
I remember slogging through my scenes with the French girl, carrying my butterfly net, speaking in a faux French accent, tripping over the back of a couch and landing on my ass, all to angry silence. I wrote a song about it called "Pratfalls For Crickets".
I left the theater every night thinking that it wouldn't be such a bad thing if I didn't make it after all, that I might just hang up the spikes if this is what acting was all about. In the space of a few short weeks I'd gone from excitement at working with a Dustin Hoffman ally to contemplating retirement.
Somewhere in space a galaxy was snuffed out of existence by the comedic inertia we invoked.