WEDNESDAY–After two days home I return to New York to participate in an audience talkback after the performance. Over the past couple of days I’ve begun to suspect that the initial euphoria of last week was ethereal and subject to dispersal upon further reflection. In other words, I’ve become paranoid. I call Jackob for reassurance, which he provides; though the moment I am calm he confesses to sharing my sense of dread.
Originally, I had planned to train up to the city and return to Maryland in the same day, but the cost is prohibitive and the timing inconvenient, so I opt for a hotel room at a dreadful place in Long Island City. I enter the room like Barton Fink.
Back in Manhattan I spy Tommy Hilfiger. I assume that there is some sort of fashion shindig nearby since the sidewalks are teeming with girls who appear to be fashioned from pipe cleaners. I later learn that the girls are here to see a Taylor Swift concert at Madison Square Garden.
I have dinner with Ava’s daughter, Raine. Ava, you may recall, is the president and only member of my west coast fan club. Raine is now in New York working as an intern and actress. We talk about the difficulty of starting out and I compliment her courage, coming directly to New York after college. When I was her age, my fear of New York drove me to New Haven, which I suppose, in retrospect, is even more frightening.
The lobby is beginning to fill as I arrive at the theater. Jackob and I shout a quick hello to the cast through the dressing room doors. There are only eight empty seats, but two of the men in the back row are nodding off before the show even begins. It will be a quiet night. The cast give a good performance, though Anne dries in a couple places. The show is greeted with smiles rather than laughter. We don’t lose anyone at intermission, but only half the crowd remains for the talkback. They are quiet, asking only two questions. But that does not stop me from blithering ceaselessly. If you put me in front of an audience, I will not be silenced without the force of armed goons. I talk for nearly twenty dull, quiet minutes, granting everyone else no more than three sentences. Thank God I’m leaving in the morning. After tonight, the critics start coming.
I grab a drink with the artistic director of Athena Theatre, a small company with roots in both New York and L.A., looking to fill their upcoming season. I pitch Stonewall’s Bust and Jack The Ticket Ripper.
THURSDAY, FRIDAY, and SATURDAY–I return to Maryland, happy to receive a couple of script requests for Beckett, a book to critique for Washington Independent Review of Books, and an offer to publish Jack The Ticket Ripper, the last of which I need to discuss with my agent. Mark’s stage manager reports indicate that the houses were either small (Thursday and the Saturday matinee) or quiet (Friday). Knowing that critics are basing their reviews upon these performances rekindles my intuitions of doom.
I am also aware of two slights which I had not expected: The New Yorker is not listing the show in its “Goings On” section, and the Times has not requested a copy of the script, which they usually do prior to a review. I assumed that the success of Engaging Shaw in New York, California, and potentially in Europe next spring would have generated at least a mention. Plus Ben Brantley had just written an article describing his love of theater about theater. Why doesn’t our show count? I am reminded of the critical silence that greeted Gianni Schicchi in Washington last year. All theater is a lesson in humility.
SUNDAY–Betsy and I leave the boys alone and drive up to New York for opening night. We are staying at the Hotel Pennsylvania and, because of this, I can’t get Pennsylvania 6-5000 out of my head. As we emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel, the sidewalks flow with costumed geeks babbling toward the Comic-con.
I scribble notes of thanks and congratulations to the cast before heading out with Betsy for a pre-show drink. We are meeting Jack DePalma, who was the chief advocate for Engaging Shaw at Old Globe before striking out on his own. As we await Jack, I notice Fred Armisen strolling up 8th Avenue. I text my sons about the sighting and they respond jadedly, “Of course you did.” Jack and Betsy hit it off well. I’m very happy she is here. I mention that Henry and I hope to develop Comedy Of Venice and Jack expresses interest in the play’s premise.
Energy is high at the theater. Jackob tells me that last night’s show was packed, with a very responsive audience. We expect the same tonight. I have a few friends present including my agent and a pair of poets from Baltimore, whose luggage we store in the dressing room. I ask Kim about critics but he is circumspect and evasive. Jan whispers that she’s having trouble getting the Times. Frustrating.
The show itself goes off without a hitch. No lines are dropped. Everyone is focused. And the laughter is prevalent. If any critics saw this performance, they saw the one we set out to present.
I am surrounded by well-wishers at the party and don’t get to speak with everyone I see. Jack is complimentary, declaring the play a workplace comedy that could be developed into a sitcom, like Slings And Arrows. He offers to read anything I care to send him. My agent is all smiles, observing that he didn’t see anywhere a critic could “nail us.” Amanda, the box office manager, keeps slipping me extra drink tickets. Kim and Betsy take pictures. Jan appears emotional as she presents the cake. Warren is gloriously loopy from a single wine spritzer and kisses all the men. Everyone is asking Jackob and me “what’s next?”
I hadn’t thought of that. The question lurks all night within the shadows of my mind, nurtured by ego and avarice. Betsy and I leave the party to get dinner at an Irish pub on 9th Avenue.
MONDAY–Jackob calls as Betsy and I are having breakfast. The first review is out, from Theatermania, and it’s a rave. With the Times not in the picture yet, Theatermania is perhaps the highest profile review we will receive this week. Jackob calls twice more during the drive home to read more positive press. My imagination turns to the question of last night: “What’s next?” I feel the contentment from last year’s success of Engaging Shaw transform into ambition for greater successes now. Greed stirs and I create a silent litany of long-dormant, professional desires–the “I want” list.
Back home, I google the title and discover two negative reviews Jackob had withheld from me. In both, the script is blamed for the production’s failure. Rather than cooling the “I want,” these pans make the feeling burn hotter, fueling it with petulant hubris. Delving deeper into the search results, I come across a review from a site I don’t recognize. Upon clicking the link, I see that it is not a review at all but a blog entry. An audience member is writing about the show. And what she writes stirs me deeply.
She dissects the play, quoting from it, applying it to her own life, and advocating for it with the struggling artist’s desperate fervor against the silence of an empty hall. “Nobody reads this,” she concludes, “but if they did, I’d tell them to see this show.”
My wants dissolve. I don’t care anymore about the Times ignoring me or the sanction of lesser critics. All that matters is having touched this one person so profoundly. If I am to continue in this career, my focus needs to shift from “What more can I get?” to “What more can I give?”
I’m guessing the answer is probably, “Not much.” But until now, I’d never felt the responsibility to try.