It’s been a long dry spell–six years–since I last had a play performed in the sort of church basement venues that community theatre is consigned to, but I’m hopeful–now that the President of the United States has declared the pandemic “over“–that things will start to pick up in the low-rent drama world that an amateur playwright such as myself inhabits.
Waltham, Mass., back in the day.
I’m sitting in The Busted Watch, a friendly neighborhood bar in Waltham that recalls the days when this little burg was known as “Watch City” because of all the timepieces it cranked out year after year. “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution” is another monicker it is known by, although I wouldn’t refer to it that way unless you’re like a really good friend of it; not just Christmas card friendly, in other words, but hey-let-me-buy-you-a-drink friendly.
I’m waiting to see if I’ve made the cut for the upcoming ten-minute play festival to be put on by The Watch City Players. Maybe I won’t make the big Saturday night performance, but I’m hoping to at least make the Friday night lights of the junior varsity. I don’t know what it will take for me to get “off the schneid,” as my dad used to say, by which he (and others) meant to break a losing streak. I’ve never actually been booed, but I was hissed in Lowell, Massachusetts when one of the characters in my last play referred to his former girlfriend’s German/Yiddish heritage, whose language gave birth to the now archaic phrase. Everybody’s so touchy these days.
I’m waiting for the panel of judges to hand down their decision when who should sit down next to me but Tennessee Williams, whose plays continue to be performed nearly four decades after his death. He’s achieved what all playwrights hope for as long as they live–posthumous fame! Yes it always comes too late, but then so does my wife when we’re going out to dinner.
“Mind if I join you?” he asks, and it is all I can do to keep myself from gushing all over him like an autograph hound and saying “Oh my God–you’re one of my biggest fans!”
Williams and I couldn’t be more different. He’s a successful playwright, I–well, if you want to meet someone who’s had a little success writing plays, I’ve had as little as anybody. He’s gay, I’m straight. He’s short, I’m . . . average in height. He’s an alcoholic, I’m a moderate social drinker who never imbibes more than a pre-dinner sherry, a six pack of beer, a gin and tonic, a bottle of red wine, an after-dinner port and maybe a single malt scotch in a single sitting.
“So what’s eating you?” he asks, cutting right to the bone. I’m not surprised; he seems to have a penetrating insight into the emotional injuries that cause people to run off the rails, to mix my metaphors.
“I’m a failure–isn’t that enough?”
“You’re not a failure–yet,” he says with calm assurance. “Not until you die before you give up.”
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had a play performed,” I say.
“Like that didn’t happen to me, at the beginning, middle and end of my career?”
“Very Aristotelian of you, but I don’t think you ever went seventeen years without having a play performed in New York,” I say.
“Ouch,” he concedes, then nods to the bartender and orders a martini. “That is bad. And the last one was?”
“‘Welcome to Endive,’ in 2005. At least I was on the same bill as Bruce Jay Friedman.”
“Don’t know him.”
“Wrote ‘The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life.’”
“Never read it.”
“They made it into a movie with Steve Martin in 1984.”
“Who’s Steve Martin?”
“I guess I should probably keep my references to the years before you died, huh?”
“That would be helpful, yes.” He took a sip of his martini and looked me up and down. “My guess is you’ve still got a shot.”
“Yessss,” he drawls out. “I happen to know that you and I have a lot in common.” Death will do that for you–all of a sudden you’re omniscient, you can see through people like those “Visible Man” and Visible Woman” kits they used to sell in hobby stores.
He closes his eyes as if to communicate with the inchoate and the extramundane. “I seem to see a connection to the University of Missouri.”
“My two sisters went there, and I went to a lot of their football games.”
“How about that 1960 Orange Bowl!” he says, recalling the win over Navy that capped a perfect, if slightly marred, 11-0 season. “I went there but dropped out when I failed ROTC.”
“How, exactly, does one fail ROTC?” I ask. “Isn’t it just marching back and forth and handling dummy rifles?”
“Yes but I wasn’t cut out for that. While I was there I pledged Alpha Tau Omega.”
“You’re kidding!” I say. “I went to a drunken rush party there!”
“And you decided on the basis of that Bacchanalian beer fest to attend college elsewhere–correct?”
“Yes, yes I did.”
“Well, I went on to Washington University in St. Louis.”
“One of my sons went there!”
“So I gather. And during the summer I worked at International Shoe Company in St. Louis.”
“My mom and dad met there!”
“That’s so sweet,” he says drily as he nods to the bartender for another drink. “I couldn’t stand it.”
“I can’t say either of them had an artistic temperament,” I say.
“I wrote poems on the sides of the damned shoeboxes.”
“Now, now,” I say, as the son of a former shoe company owner.
“It was mind-numbing stuff. I lived for a while in Provincetown.”
“So did I,” I say, then add sheepishly, “but only for a weekend.”
“I had a play–Battle of Angels–performed in Boston.”
“I’ve had a play performed in Boston!”
“And did you make any money on it?”
“Well, no. It was community theatre.”
“That’s okay. You know the old saying?”
“You can’t make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing.”
“Ha,” I replied, and I meant it. At this point I’m running a deficit if you add up all the play contest entry fees I’ve spent and put them in the balance across from my *cough* receipts.
“What else?” he asks.
“Well, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Miami and Key West–and you have too, right?”
“True but trivial. Anything else?”
“I was raised Catholic.”
“I was converted, but it didn’t take.”
“Yeah, those Ten Commandments are awfully tempting.”
“I was a failure as a screenwriter,” he says.
“This is getting downright . . . eerie–so am I.”
“Okay,” he says, as he signals to the bartender to bring him his check. “I think you’ve got enough to go on. Now get back to your desk, get your ass in your chair, and get to work, okay?”
“Thanks,” I say, and I mean it.
“One last piece of advice?”
“Don’t depend on the kindness of strangers.”