Closing Night Shenanigans

The playwright spent the entirety of our final performance with his head in his hands.

We all knew that Alfie would instigate shenanigans of some such (and I state that warmly), but no one could say exactly what. Probably, he didn’t know himself. I warned him not to pull anything during the funeral scene—as he had several weeks ago.

The show consists of loosely connected vignettes; the first is set in a courtroom. Before the proverbial curtain rises (“proverbial” because there isn’t one), Lisha and I take the two seats reserved for us in the front row of the audience. The place seats maybe seventy patrons, if you really pack them in. I couldn’t tell you why Lisha and I were seated in the audience. I wasn’t there to question directorial choices. I was there to work the rust out of my acting chops. The show actually begins just prior to the courtroom scene, when the rest of the cast enters and crisscrosses the stage as if they’re all single, love-starved (or at least horny) adults on their way to and from work. I couldn’t tell you how the audience is supposed to understand this.

When the lights dim on the opening pantomime, we’re left with a silhouette of a man (Natt) lit against a curtain of taped-together newspapers (or “scrim,” if you want to get snooty about it). He reads his personal ad to the audience. After that, the lights rise on the first scene—the aforementioned courtroom scene. And this is where our “single white play seeking audience” (as one critic put it) veers off into The Twilight Zone (or Theatre of the Absurd, if you want to get snooty about it).

Alfie, as The Judge, sits behind his “bench” (a folding table) with his gavel. He’s added something new to his costume tonight: a fat suit. He pounds the gavel against the table as if he’s trying to drive a nail through it. Once his arm tires, he pulls out the box of Cheez-Its he’s hidden under his robe. He rips it open and starts munching its contents as sloppily as humanly possible. Again, to be clear, this new stage business is completely unscripted, entirely unrehearsed, and, without question, unapproved. Along with the Texas drawl he’s added, he mumbles through his opening lines, spitting orange Cheez-It bits and pieces all over his beard and robe. It takes tremendous fortitude for the rest of the cast not to “break character.” (Alfie can make you burst out laughing with the simple arch of his eyebrow. Even when he’s seriously pissed off, you’ll find it hard not to crack a smile.) Natt takes the stand… and asks for a Cheez-It. He’s playing a defendant who pleads glaucoma over the charge of deflowering a sixteen year old girl.* Alfie shakes the box out over Natt’s proffered hand, but not before dropping his gavel—which spins across the stage. Rhett, who plays The Defense Attorney, retrieves it. The second time Natt takes the stand, he tells Alfie to clean himself up. At this, sudden inspiration leads me to shout, “You call this a court of law?” Although it is something my character would, under the circumstances, say, it doesn’t get a laugh. Alfie, all he does is glare at me. Really, though, he should’ve held me in contempt. I deserved it.

When I take the stand as Uncle Wally (a witness for the prosecution), I rant about how Natt’s character made my underage niece insane with lust. As I build into something of a rage, the lines go: “Him! He’s the problem! He made her insane! Hell knows what they did when I wasn’t looking!” But this last time I slipped in something extra: “Him! He’s the problem! He made her insane! He made her… cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs! Hell knows what they did…” I was confident it would get a laugh, if not a groan. Instead, nothing. Silence.

The rest of the cast caught my adlib over the staticky baby monitor downstairs, in the “green room” (part of a labyrinthine basement with mildewy furniture and a line of cracked mirrors). Said baby monitor picks up random cell phone conversation as often as it picks up the onstage dialogue. Downstairs, my “cuckoo for Coco Puffs” line seemed to go over fairly well with the rest of the cast. Then again, as we say in the Theatre, “There are no bad choices.” (Though there are often better ones—or, rather, “stronger” ones.) Here’s a tip: If you try something, and it works, you’ll hear about it; if it flops, you won’t, not from your castmates (assuming they aren’t jerks).

So concluded the major mischief of Act One, Scene One. And since I’m only in a few scenes, I missed much of the buffoonery that followed. I know that Tyrus, during one of his scenes, yelled at some woman from the audience who was seeking out the restroom. “It’s backstage!” he shouted. Indeed, the only restroom in our storefront theater is, in fact, behind the “stage.” I couldn’t tell you what happened next. If nothing else, she left with a story to tell. Tyrus also let a whoopie cushion rip during an offstage sexual encounter. Said encounter was, in fact, scripted. And, to be clear, it was, in its entirety, an audible performance. Then again, I’m usually downstairs during that part of the show—and Tyrus does have something of a reputation.

Alfie throws in only one adlib during the funeral scene. As I enter, Alfie, who is now playing a mourner, says,  “It’s time.” And as I take my place, I say, per the script, “My name is Father McBride. Some of you know me.” Well, for our final performance, as I walk on reading a Bible, Alfie decides to chirp, “Oh! It’s Father McBride! I hear he puts on a real good show!” And at this, I can’t help but snort. I try to make it look like a sniffle. Alfie has nothing else to say for the rest of the scene. Regardless, my chief objective becomes one of getting through it without acknowledging his existence.

During the very last scene of the play, Alfie decides to grab a seat in the second row. He belts out a laugh anytime anyone onstage does anything remotely humorous. After that, he stays with the audience through the curtain call, giving the rest of the cast a standing ovation. 

2 February 2000 

*[Back in 2000, believe it or not, this passed as mildly amusing irreverent comedy. Or so some of us thought.] 

[In hindsight, one wonders whether the entire exercise of frivolous theater on the fringe is little more than a youthful mating ritual.] 

[This production marked the resurrection of my “career” in the Theatre, which, in essence, shambled along through the rest of the noughties like a Walking Dead zombie. No, probably a little worse than that. My fault, entirely.]

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