Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

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