Today, October 19, 2009, is the 20 year anniversary of me learning some of the biggest lessons, to date, of my career as a playwright. The occasion was the first performance that wasn’t, of my death row drama “Monster Time”. It was a set back which still affects my standing in the theater world. I believe that “opening night that wasn’t” and events that ensued is why my plays and musicals have yet to find a publisher.
“Monster Time” is a three character tragedy set on death row somewhere in the United States. A condemned serial killer named Ferretti takes his jailer hostage on the night he is to be executed, which happens to be Halloween. There’s a shiv hidden in the room outside the death chamber and after a strip search, Ferretti turns the tables. The audience sees all the action from the point of view of Ferretti, who is quite mad. The desk in the holding area is a huge rock. Walker, the guard, is stripped naked and chained to the rock for the next 2/3 of the play. The third character is Ferretti’s hallucination – an amorphous, androgynous blue being that also serves as a chorus in the tradition of ancient Greek theater. Other than the rock, the rest of the set is created by the lighting.
Our opening night was scheduled for October 19. On October 18, the last day of tech, I had yet to see a run thru, and neither of the actors had taken off their clothes in rehearsals. When I raised this issue, Don Hannah, one of the actors said “You think it’s easy? I’d like to see you do something naked on stage.” At which point I went up on the, stage stripped off my clothes, and read the entire play from start to finish in the buff.
Now for some back story. The director was a Dutch guy named Willem. We had worked together on the Plexus productions “Eve” and “Cristoforo Colombo Viaggio nel Pianete Arte”, and Sara and I had visited him in Holland, where he was involved in the theater scene in Amsterdam, and obviously well-regarded. He and Sandro both lobbied for him to direct “Monster Time” and the producer liked the idea of a European director.
The producer was a retired advertising executive named Bill. (He told me that if I ever wrote a memoir, I should only refer to him by his first name.) Bill had invested in the Off Broadway hit “Other People’s Money” and wanted to have his own hit as a producer. He was a lovable guy and wasn’t afraid to spend a buck. He was also, like most advertising execs, a bit of a star fucker.
So Bill flew in Willem and we all cast the show together. I knew the late Eric Douglas, son of Kirk and brother of Michael, and he wanted to audition. I didn’t think he was right but Willem and Bill were all excited to have a real Hollywood connection to the show. Steve Buscemi also auditioned for us and I wanted him, but he was an unknown at the time. He would have been perfect as Ferretti. There were a dozen other actors we saw who would have been perfect as Walker. But during his audition, Don Hannah somehow brought up the fact that his sister is Darryl Hannah. By this time Eric was already cast, despite my reservations, and Bill got all excited at the publicity possibilities of having two siblings of two stars from the movie “Wall Street” appearing in the production together.
When the actress, a member of the Living Theater, who was to play Ferretti’s hallucination met Don and Eric for the first time, she took me aside and told me she had to drop out of the project. My wife, Sara Jackson, stepped into the role.
So, the next evening after my naked reading for the cast and director was to be our first performance. (Bill went across the street to the bar Downtown Beirut and got hammered during my reading.) I had yet to see a run thru. When I arrived at the theater, I was informed that “someone” had called everyone on the reservation list and asked them to come another night. There were three or four people in the audience, including me. The cast got up onstage and did the first scene, took a bow, and walked off. At this point, Willem got up onstage and made a speech about “process”, and said that the next night, the actors would do two scenes, and so on each night until they finally did the entire play.
I went ballistic. I had written an entire play and that’s what I wanted to see. I didn’t want it presented piece meal. Willem quit – since he’d already been paid in full – and I threatened to divorce my wife for not telling me about this disaster beforehand. (We’re still married.) I took over the next day as director and canceled the rest of the performances that weekend.
We had a huge and successful opening the next week, but that was a bright spot among a storm of troubles that were brewing beneath the surface.