Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Winter/Spring: 1999)

After "Angel Wings" I truly felt at a crossroads. My creative circle had centered around the 42nd Street Workshop and I could never trust them again. We had trotted out an abomination as casually as I take my wallet out of my pocket to buy a coffee.

On the day after the night that we were to tech "Angel Wings" I had the worst audition (I hope and pray) that I have ever had.

Someone had obtained the rights to the novel "Trainspotting" and had written a play from it. The movie had come out in 1996 but no one had ever secured the rights to a theatrical play. Irvine Welsh, the novelist, apparently gave his stamp of approval to the project.

My agents called me and said I had an audition to play Tommy, described in the breakdowns as "a gentle giant".

The first audition was at about 5PM before I had to head to The Neighborhood Playhouse to start tech rehearsal.

The casting director had never met me before. She took an instant liking to me. She was a young hip Manhattanite and she immediately realized that I had not been submitted for the right part. She said I was definitely the Ewan MacGregor type. She said I should come to the callbacks the next day ready to audition for Renton.

Needless to say I was psyched. I was a bit concerned that my agents had gotten the submission so wrong which meant that I'd prepared for an audition that I wouldn't give. I was also worried because the tech would most likely go really late and I wouldn't have much time to prepare for the audition. Looming over all this was the damn play "Angel Wings" itself.

Of course the tech lasted til almost 2AM. Of course the next morning I got calls for three commercial auditions, last minute. I tried to work on the audition when I got home from the tech but I was way too exhausted. I figured I'd stay at home and work on it all day. But no, I headed out to smile and hawk products and hustle jobs. I bundled little Cashel into his stroller and headed into the city.

The three auditions were in three separate parts of the city. They were spaced out in such a manner that I'd be in transit all day long. Bringing Cashel to commercial auditions was a snap. He'd be asleep in his stroller or an actor I knew would sit with him while I put myself on tape.

But for theater or tv auditions it was more complicated.

I arranged with a friend to meet me at the Barnes and Noble near the "Trainspotting" audition which was at 4:45PM.

I'd barely been able to work on the long heroin fueled monologue, let alone the Scottish accent it required. As I sat in the hallway getting more and more nervous as I realized how unprepared I was, I heard the guy before me doing his rendition of what I would be doing shortly.

He was actually Scottish. Any tiny confidence I could have mined from the depths of my consciousness evaporated in that instant and by the time I entered the room I was a wreck.

The flirty casting agent hooked her arm in my elbow and walked me into the room, whispering in my ear, "Best for last", as I was the last actor they would see that day. I was about to prove her so wrong.

I started the monologue. My accent sounded like a drunk frat boy doing a Mike Myers imitation. Then it morphed into Sean Connery trying to do a Russian accent. And for a while there it was straight up Hillbilly.

I asked if I could start again. They said fine. Again a stream of unidentifiable American twisted into cartoon shapes started coming from my mouth. Again I said I'd start the monologue over. This last effort so unhinged me that halfway through I simply stopped, looked at them all behind their table, and stopped. I said, "I think I'm just gonna go. This isn't working."

And the casting director who thought I looked like Ewan Macgregor and brought me directly to callbacks and said "Best for last" less than three minutes earlier looked at me and said, "Well at least you know."

Needless to say, having to go perform "Angel Wings" for the first time in front of an audience that night was a hammer blow to my ego. I began seriously, for the first and only time ever, that perhaps I wasn't as talented as I thought I was, perhaps I just wasn't an actor after all.

A week later I got another audition that required an accent. "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" had been the toast of Broadway that year and was about to have its first regional production mounted at Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill, NC.

A surge of determination arose in me and I was damned if I wasn't going to get that part. I decided before the audition that it was mine. In the audition I literally ate the scenes alive. The director was a gentle man who reminded me of many of my uncles. He gave me a few tweaks and I went with them unreservedly. I knew I'd gotten the part.

I went through the rest of the "Angel Wings" run less affected by having to abase myself nightly in front of strangers. I had a job. I was going to get my Equity Card. I was going to North Carolina.

Now, I've written here about meeting Melody on the campus there, in a series of posts centering around the legendary rock and roll club Cat's Cradle that sits in a strip mall right off campus. As follows: Cat's Cradle, Pt. 1: Alone, Combustible, Cat's Cradle, Pt. 2: What a Superdrag, Cat's Cradle, Pts. 3 Thru Now: Emmitt Swimming, Cat's Cradle, Pts. 3 Thru Now: Fate Taps Me On The Shoulder and Cat's Cradle, Pts 3 Thru Now: Emmitt Swimming, The Wig, The Almost-Fight, The Lie.

The personal side of this story is, aside from Cashel being born, the crucial event in my adult life.

But the actual theatrical event? Total magic from beginning to end. Pauline Flanagan played the twisted mother. Pauline was an Irish grande dame of the theater who had been in the original production of "Ulysses In Night Town" with Zero Mostel, she'd been a close friend of Harold Pinter who wrote with her in mind, and she was a consummate pro. This part is not an easy one and she was in her seventies. She was a monster.

The theater was a raised three quarter thrust stage which is to my way of thinking one of the most difficult playing spaces. You have all of the sight line challenges that come with playing in the round, all of the sight line challenges that come from being raised above the first few rows of seats, but with none of the benefits that those attributes can give if they are prominent.

Pauline and I had a moment in our last scene that we knew we could get a big laugh on. But the position of her rocking chair, raised on a slight platform above the rest of the floor, made getting this laugh very difficult. We schemed and plotted to wring that laugh out of at least one audience before we were through.

Every day the moment would come and even though our characters were antagonists we would share a funny little look every time the laugh didn't come. She was a blast. When we finally got it we celebrated like we'd just won Oscars.

This was the first time I'd ever done a part in which I'd recently seen the original done. The guy who played my part on Broadway, a great actor named Tom Murphy, had been indelibly burned into my brain. How would I escape that shadow?

Somehow our director, Nagle Jackson, managed to steer me away from the rocks. He made everything seem 100% natural and unique to us. I quickly forgot that the play had ever been done anywhere else. We took that thing and ran with it.

Rumor had it that Martin McDonagh might be coming to see it, seeing as this would be the first time his play had been taken and played without him having a big hand in it. But that never materialized.

So in the space of a few short months I'd gone from a terrible play done for nothing and the worst audition perhaps in the history of auditions to fully inhabiting the sick and twisted world that Martin McDonagh created in the fields of Leenane.

Pauline Flanagan passed away in 2003 after a long bout with Cancer. She had a giant collection of giraffes that she'd gathered over the years. People would buy them for her on their trips. She was that kind of person.

At the close of the play I wrote the following small book of poetry inspired by the play and the performances I'd been lucky enough to witness.

I called it Pageantry and Savages.

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