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Entrances and Exits
by Phil Geusz and J.(Channing)Wells
Night. From without, the city languishes in the heat of a dying Summer.
The Ritz-Savery. The Penthouse. The night of the First Attended Preview.
Yep. I'm here again.
Gawd, this place holds memories. I was here for the first time less than one year ago, at Wallace's damnable get-together after that one pivotal performance of _Merchant of Venice_ that got me dropped from the show and stranded here in the City. Less than one year ago. _Here_ is the couch where John was sitting. _There_ was where Wallace stood, at a point precisely equidistant from the free-standing ash-tray and the wet bar. _Here_ was me, wallflowering myself over by the food. (As usual.) And _There_, in that big open space, for maximum adoring-public accessibility, was the Divine Ahn-Drea, the brightest of the bright, the company starlet and overall Wonderworker.
There is the bathroom I retreated to when the overall stressfulness of the environment became too intense for me to bear. Beyond, the Master Bedroom, where I collapsed and, quite accidentally, fell asleep, utterly exhausted by the rigors of the evening. There is the mantelpiece against which Ahn-Drea was bouncing her baseball very early the next morning, whose noise awoke me from my inadvertent slumber. Here was where I was standing the very first time I realized that Drea _wasn't_ the arrogant star-studded glamour girl that I had always presumed that she was. And here was where I realized that, when I was in her glorious presence, the horrid images that I bore (and still bear) of Jenny's suicide began, ever-so-slightly, to heal. Here is the foyer where I said goodbye.
And here is the very coffee table that Ahn-Drea fell against when I showed up at her room again that very night, twenty-four hours and one lost job later, when I came upon her overwhelmed with rage, pain and alcohol and, damn me to hell, _hit_ her, the force of the blow and the resultant fall rendering her bloody and senseless.
It's all the same. It's all coming back, now.
I sip quietly at my tonic with lime, hold the vodka. It is a drink that has come to be very symbolic to me at a deep and personal level, a representation of my own self-control and a gentle reminder of how close I often have come to succumbing to temptation. Three extra syllables to the barkeep would mean the end of everything I've worked for ever since that one hideous night. My mind is and has always been a battleground, my raw and instinct-driven emotions engaged in a constant, desperate struggle against the walls of my sanity. Alcohol is the one weapon that my instinct needs to break down the barriers and, presently, gain conquest of _all._
Beside me stands another. He is drinking a cola of some kind. It's a far more pedestrian drink, granted. But it makes me feel good to have someone to teetotal along with.
He is also an actor.
He is also a SCAB.
"Dear me." He says, smiling an easy lupine smile, and surveying the assembled Company. "Everyone seems frightfully nervous tonight, no?"
I grin anxiously at him. Wanderer is the _only_ thespian I know who could possibly consider even putting on a front of relaxation at a time like this.
"I d'nno, Wand. I think we're kind of in for the long haul. Things are gonna get worse before they get better."
"How... erm..." He pauses and sips at his drink. "How did you think it went?"
I don't remember a thing. It's all one big blur. The lights, the noise, the sound, the...
Oh, God... the Smell...
Whirling around in a Technicolor maelstrom that had all the fluidity and fragility of a dream. The Holiness of it all. Two and one half hours of transcendent bliss. A window into the mind of God. The Music of the Spheres. Help me out, here. I'm _completely_ at a loss.
And, suddenly, I realized that it was done. And with no real knowledge of how I came to be there, I found myself standing in the wings of Stage Right. And for some reason, everyone else in the entire cast was out there on stage... And people were...
...and there was something I was supposed to do and I don't remember what it was and then it was like, "oh, yes, now I remember" and it had something to do with walking out there, back into the lights, away from the shadows, and standing there and standing there for a moment as the People sitting...
...some standing, now...
...out there kept on making those funny noises with their hands that meant that they had liked _something_ and...
...someone from the cast motioned to me and...
I stepped simply onto the stage, stood in the center. And took one, careful bow.
Thunder. Jesus God Almighty Father.
One last company bow with all the cast.
I sip at my drink. "I thought it went well."
He nods. "I think everyone is feeling that. It's a good sign. Plus, the audience really seemed to be enjoying themselves."
"Wand, you know _very_ well that the mind of the Audience and the mind of the Critic are two different animals entirely."
He laughs in that pleasantly Britannic way. "I know, I know, dear boy. How long?"
I look at my watch. "Two hours until first release."
He peruses the corners of his mind for a second, and then says, "Do you think we'll make it?"
I look around at the assembled Company. Everywhere, the conversation is bright, brittle and snappy. We're wound as tight as violin strings. Rebecca has just barely managed to muster the coordination to refill her drink after accidentally dumping her previous one on a potted shrub, and Tim is eating from the small buffet as though tomorrow will never come. Somewhere close to the epicenter of Room Importance is Herr Direktor Barlow, who is fretting quietly to himself in a leather-backed armchair while trying to hold an intelligent conversation with Miz Sophia Danning. His leg is jittering slightly. And Roger... well... Roger is doing that thing he does with his horns again.
Did I mention Roger? Perhaps not. Roger is a SCAB. An Angus Bull of considerable size and phenomenal vocal ability. He has an operatic ring to his voice that most performers would give their right kidneys for. Why is he here? Well. Y'see, rumor had it that Alan Barlow of Windy City Rep, based out of Chicago (well, _duh_) but having accessory branches in many large cities in the East and the Middle West, had this queer idea that maybe, just _maybe_, for the fiftieth anniversary revival of _Sunday in the Park with George_ a big spotted SCAB of some kind, let's say... a.... Dalmatian... would be artistically perfect for Sondheim's tribute to the Pointilists. Rumor _also_ had it that, upon hearing that there was a director from a sorta-kinda-big touring Rep company recruiting in the city who was actually considering putting a SCAB in a non-trivial role, a certain _other_ dashingly canidesque SCAB thespian decided to try _his_ luck in the cattle-call lines. One thing led to another, and, sure enough, just as I had always suspected but never confirmed, people like me and Wand started showing up out of the woodwork, each with little more than a monologue and a dream. Dancers and actors and performance artists, all deprived of their canvases by the Martian Flu, suddenly seeing opportunities where previously there were none.
I got in through luck of the draw; Barlow wanted a Dal, he got one. Wanderer got in because he charmed Barlow's ass off up there. And Roger got in because of that voice.
Three of us.
Trying to prove a point to the world at large: that _we_ could do it just as well as _they_ could.
Anyway. Roger uses his officious voice very nicely in the role of the Soldier, and I was delighted that Wand got a chance to show off his skill in affected accents (with something other than his classic Shakespearean dialect) in the role of the German coachman, Franz. He was _great_ tonight; I think all three of us are burning this one at both ends, throwing all our hearts and souls into this one, beautiful chance to do a Real Show. But I'm taking too much credit, here. We _all_ worked hard. All of us. We're exhausted, excited, jittery and just plain overwrought. Roger is opening beverage cans with the tip of one horn, a little party trick that he only does when he's really, _really_ antsy.
It is a sad but true fact that the Review is the single most important determiner of the continued success of a show. Live Theatre is an _expensive_ art form to take part in; it's a simple fact about the profession. Ticket prices for the Performing Arts are higher, per capita, than any other exhibition of artistic prowess. As a result, people are very, very uneasy about shelling out what can amount to eightyplus bucks a pop or more for some of the larger shows. And so, before spending their hard-earned money, they turn to the Experts.
In our fair city, the resident Expert occupies the Theatrical and Dramatic Criticism desk at the Daily Sentinel. His name is Martin Zemler, and he might as well be holding the office two doors down from God. Martin Zemler has the power to make or break a show, by his very words, and the bastard knows it, too.
Thankfully, he is a relatively beneficent executor of the Almighty, but on the other hand, he is utterly fair. Forty-odd years at that desk gives you a little bit of perspective on how things work in the Business, and odds are, when Zemler says something is wrong, it's wrong. Regardless of whether you thought so or not. And if he notices _enough_ things wrong, or worse, is simply nonplussed overall-wise-speaking, he will tell _everybody._ And, for the most part, he will be trusted implicitly. And people will stay away in droves.
We all hope Zemler liked us. Yes we do.
Because if Zemler liked us, we go on. Our Backers will be Impressed. A couple months here in the city, Evening performances and matinees, the whole shebang. High School Outreaches for all the French Students. Guaranteed sellouts, there. Then, if we're still pulling it in, knowing WCR, we'll hop around the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest for a bit, weekend to weekend stints, one city at a time. Life on the Road. Living out of an endless series of hotel rooms, meals to go, beds made every morning by Housekeeping. Every week a different venue, a different skyline. Activity and Life.
A steady paycheck. _ACTING._
Nice work if you can get it...
And if Zemler didn't like us... Well. You've guessed that, too. We'll run the rest of the unextended contract, maybe paper the house a bit, try _damn_ hard for word-of-mouth and generally speaking, end up folding so fast that it'll leave our collective heads spinning.
This is a good show. We can _feel_ it. But it is also a _risky_ show. _Damn_ risky. Three SCAB's in comparatively major, plotbearing parts. An historic moment in relatively big-time theatre.
We are hoping like _hell_ he didn't have a headache or something.
Zemler always turns in his morning report in time for the Early Edition. Two hours away, now. Two endless, aching, painful, grind-yer-teeth-down-to-flinders hours.
We're at our wits' ends. Sleep? You gotta be kidding me. We had planned for this in advance. Barlow had rented the Penthouse as a nice, comfortable place for us to get together and pass the hours 'til the Word of God is revealed to us. Then... after that... welllll... we either hold the tiredest celebratory huzzah that the world has ever seen or we commiserate quietly until the cows come home. Either or. Whichever. And in the meantime... we sit.
Have I mentioned that we're anxious, yet? Good.
I snap my attention back to Wanderer. "Make it? Sorry?"
"Do you think we'll last the night without going utterly batty?"
I look again at the Company, perusing each face in turn, twenty-nine Studies in Sheer Anxiety. Rebecca drops _another_ drink on the very same plant.
"Wanderer," I say quietly, "I don't know."
Suddenly, a squeaky-cute li'l voice from behind me. "Is everything okay?"
"Phil!" I say.
"Bunny Rabbit!" Says Wand.
And indeed it is my fuzzy little therapist standing there, holding a satchel slung under one arm and one of his odd paw-cups in the other. He gestures with it. "Brought my own glass. Wasn't sure if there'd be anything suitable, here. I only ask if everything's okay because it seems like everyone's all _tharn_ here. Maybe I missed something, of course. I don't know what makes 'Great' theatre, but _I_ sure as hell liked it. Mike, Wand, you were _fantastic._ I could kiss you both, except that I'm not going to. D'ya suppose they have vegetable juice at the bar? It's not like I'll die without it or anything. Mebbe I'll check. Whoa, hey, is that a Relish Tray over there? 'Scuse for a moment."
And he's off again. Shoom!
Wanderer looks at me. "Did you invite him?"
I shake my head. "Nope."
"I don't think he even breathed through that whole thing." I remark.
"I don't believe so." States Wanderer.
"_Tharn_?" I say.
"Richard Adams." Says Wanderer, solipsistically, watching Phil become distracted by the parsley garnish on the relish tray on his way back from the bar. "From the novel _Watership Down._ The old Brit used it to describe that sort of naked frozen horror that a rabbit feels in situations of massive distress. Our bunny friend is being arcane and literary on us. Happens when he get over-excited, you know."
Wanderer nods. "That's it."
I survey the Company. "Sounds 'bout right." I say.
A thought occurs to me, then. I look at my companion. "A whole novel about rabbits?"
"My dear boy," he says, "you have no idea."
That's about all the time we have before Phil returns, chewing up the last of a sprig of parsley, his cup newly full a suspicious red-looking liquid.
"Bloody Mary." He explains, ear-grinning. "Closest thing they had to a Jack Strafford. Ah, well. So much for this being a five-star establishment." He picks the obligatory celery stick out of the fluid and begins munching on it.
Wanderer re-assumes his cheery British lilt. "Michael and I were trying to recall who precisely it was that invited you here, my lagomorphic chum." He grins innocently. "We were unable to arrive at a satisfactory answer."
I grin at this as well, but mentally, I'm kicking myself. Phil _hadn't_ been invited. By all rights, he probably should have been. I mean, he and I have been doing the weekly meeting thing for the past couple of months, trying to get my head screwed back on straight. Hell, he was the one who had gotten me the part in the first place. I should at least have offered an invitation. I've just been so focused and self-centered of late I didn't even think to ask.
Thankfully, he decided to make up for my faux pas by committing one of his own.
"Sorry 'bout that. I kinda took the liberty of inviting myself. Had some stuff that I thought you might be interested in." He sets his drink down and carefully pulls a manila folder out of his satchel. "Opening Night Reviews." He says, proudly.
I sip calmly at my drink. "Erm. No. Actually, they're not."
Phil peers at me curiously. "Why not?"
"Two common fallacies there, Phil. Firstly, this wasn't technically Opening Night."
He looks confused. "What was it, then?"
I assume the pedagogical mode. "Well, you see, this was the First Attended Preview, actually. Opening Night is a few days away."
"But you were in costume."
"Yes." I say.
"And you had the full Orchestra."
"Yes." I say.
"And there was, unless I'm _very_ mistaken, a paying audience in attendance? Rather a _lot_ of paying audience?"
"Well. Yes." I admit.
"And this was the first time this has happened, yes?"
"But of course." Interjects Wanderer.
"So..." He says, working this out in his brain, "Why... erm... wasn't it an Opening Night?"
Frankly, I've forgotten the reason behind it myself. "It's complicated." I explain. "A theatrical tradition."
Sufficiently vague. It satisfies him. Good. I _hate_ looking stupid about things I'm supposed to be the expert at.
"What was the other fallacy?" He asks.
"Ah. Well." I say. "What you have there are _notices._ Not _reviews._"
Phil looks at the folder in his paws, then back at me. "Oh. Sure as hell looked like a review to me." He shrugs. "What's the difference?"
"Ego." Remarks Wand, sipping at his drink again.
I nod to Wanderer. "Basically, that's right. See, a _notice_ is the published opinion of any theatrical critic, regardless of who he's working for. A _review_, on the other hand, is the opinion of a critic working for one of the biggies. Like the _Times_ or the _Sentinel._ Notices are nice and all, but they really don't mean beans to the backers. It's the _review_ that determines whether we live or die. Not the notices." There. That sounded intelligent. I turn my focus back to the crowd, trying to conceal my own unease as best as I can.
"Oh." Says Phil.
"_That's_ why everyone's on edge tonight, Phil. There's two hours left until the Early Edition of the _Sentinel._"
"It's all we can do to keep sane." Remarks Wand, brightly.
"Hm." Says Phil. One ear moves very slightly.
"We're not trying to demean you, here." I say. "If you like, you can pass around your notices. It'll be interesting to see what they all thought and such." I peer curiously at the manila folder in Phil's grasp, trying to get a look at it. "Which of the smalls is it, anyway? The _Icon_? The _Charter_?"
"Not quite." He says. "Take a look."
He hands me the folder. I glance at the tab.
From The Desk Of Martin Zem--
Wanderer snatches it from me, wide eyed. "Where the devil did you get this?" He hisses at Phil.
Phil makes an idle, offhand gesture with one paw and takes a slog of Bloody Mary. "Got some connections up at the _Sentinel._ I kinda had the suspicion y'all would be interested."
It's all I can do not to let my jaw go slack. I look at Phil, then at the folder, then at Phil again.
He's doing that damnable ear-grin again.
Wanderer is just staring at the folder. It sits limply in his hands.
Elsewhere in the room, Rebecca has gotten tired of accidentally spilling her drink on the plant and has graduated onwards to accidentally running into things. Barlow is fumbling with the child-proof cap on an aspirin bottle and losing the battle. Selected members of the Company, including Roger, are staring mindlessly out the big east- facing picture windows as if waiting for the Second Coming. I notice that the bathroom door is closed and that Tim is nowhere to be seen.
"If you'd like, I could read them out l-"
"YES!" Shout Wanderer and I, in tandem.
He looks at me, blandly. "Just wanted to make sure I wasn't violating 'Theatrical Tradition' or anything." Another smile.
"_Look,_ you bloody rabbit," I say, grimacing madly. "Just read the damn review already!"
"All righty then." Says Phil. He sets down his drink on a nearby coaster, plucks the folder from Wanderer's nerveless fingers and places it, open, on the coffee table. He clears his throat, and in his squeaky but surprisingly loud little voice, says. "Excuse me!"
Conversation patters to a fragile halt. Twenty-eight more pairs of eyes turn and focus on Phil.
"Excuse me, Collected Members of Windy City Rep. I have here an early release from the Desk of Martin Zemler."
The silence that follows is the most complete and total lack of noise that I have ever not heard.
Rebecca knocks over the plant. "Sorry." She says, lamely.
Silence again. Phil milks the moment for a few seconds longer, just because he's enjoying it so much.
"Well?" Croaks Barlow, finally.
Phil clears his throat and begins to read.
At the headline, a wash of anxious grins spreads across the room. The abstract brings forth even more. And when he reaches the principal summary, we are _swimming._
Phil's words are liquid gold.
It's tail-wagging time.
Rebecca gets raves. Barlow's direction gets raves. Roger gets a chiding for overstatement, but a general plus. Wanderer gets a _specific mention._ The art direction is slightly panned for its invariance from the original production way back when, but we anticipated that. And me..?
Well. Zemler felt that I demonstrated a strong vocal presence and a wonderful intensity. He thought that the chemistry I displayed in my relationship with Rebecca was top-of-the-line, hinting always at the undercurrent of tension that was inherent in any interactions between these two characters. He _did_ feel that certain selected bits hinted at the melodramatic style, and he would have preferred a simpler take. But overall...
He said I was _lovely._
I am struggling with myself at the moment, attempting to stay true to the old actor's maxim to, for better or for worse, never take reviews too seriously. But this time, it's not working.
We've _won._ And it feels good. _Damn_ good.
Barlow gets up from his chair at the end of Phil's recitation, the aspirin bottle completely forgotten.
"Ladies and Gents." He says. "We have ourselves a _SHOW!_"
Wild cheering and celebrations ensue. Barlow catches my eye and gives me a nod, which I dizzily return. He then goes off to hobnob, all smiles for the first time in days.
The sense of Rightness is unbearable. As the warm chatter of success grows around me, I feel the noise building in my throat. And I'll be damned if I'm going to suppress it this time.
I howl. A sound of pure, unadulterated joy. Scattered laughter and pitterpats of mock-applause. It goes on for some time, until I run out of air. Quick Pause. Breath.
"I LOVE THIS JOB!" I shout. And there are answering cheers that blend back into the noise of the party that will continue on until the coming of dawn
Somewhere amidst the swirl of the Company, I catch a glimpse of Phil as he leaves the reviews on the table for all to peruse and wanders over to the buffet. Watching the ongoing merriment with a vaguely self-satisfied air, he picks a single bright orange baby carrot off the relish tray, examines it for a moment, and takes one smug little nibble.
He then leans back, folds his paws across his fuzzy chest, and Observes the lot of us in our celebrations. Almost as though he were the one to have made the whole thing possible.
That _might_ not be so far from the truth.
* * *
Friday again. Opening Night. Arch and me at the garage. It's late. Time 'til call: one hour.
"Start 'er up!" I yell. Archie complies, and the engine roars to life. I drum on the side panel triumphantly. "EEEYES!" I proceed to make a few victorious little whoofling noises, pump my fist a couple of times, then do a rapid series of foot-thumps which escalate into a quick little in-place dance, accompanied by happy yipping sounds.
Arch lets me go on with this foolishness for some time, looking on with an amused smirk.
"_Somebody's_ in a good mood this evening." He says, finally.
I grin lopsidedly at him, panting slightly from my exertions. "_Told_ ya a change of plugs would do the trick. Pay up."
He forks me a Washington. "Sure, sure, _now_ you think y' have the right to get cocky with me."
"No better time." I say, glancing at my watch. "Ten more minutes and I'm out of here for _good._"
He smiles, wanly. "You don't have to sound so _happy_ about it, f'goodness' sake..."
I put a bit of a damper on my exuberance, for Arch's sake, and do my best to convey textbook "sincere." I'm an actor. I can do this. "I know, I know, Arch. It wasn't you." I pause, looking about for a moment. "You run a good shop, here. The problem was with me."
"You're all right." He says, distantly. "Feels like we just got to know you, Mike, and now we're already letting you go. Don't suppose you'd maybe like to keep working half- or quarter-time or anything?"
I shake my head. "No offense, Arch, but the past few months have been kind of wearing me out. Now that I know this isn't just gonna be a one-shot deal, I'd kinda like to focus my efforts. You know." As I talk, I begin spiffing things up for the day's end. "Besides, I'd have a hell of a time making it in for work from Newark or wherever we're heading next with this thing."
"Well." He says. "You're a damn fine mechanic, Mike, and we're sorry to lose you."
"Thanks." I say, meaning it. "You've done me a couple big favors, Arch, and I hate to have to repay you like this."
He waves a hand, dismissively. "Forgetaboutit. Seems like the biggest favor I could do for you right now is t' let you go in peace."
"It's not as if I didn't like working here..." I protest.
Arch cuts me off. "But you didn't. No offense here either, Mike. I understand. Lord knows _I'd_ be miserable anywhere else but this place. So I gotcha."
He looks around the old shop for a moment, reminiscing, taking in, as though for the first time anew, every detail of the place. The noise of the now quietly-running engine. The pleasant warmth of the repair bay. The smell of oil and grease and steel and ozone. Presently, I join him.
Arch and I really aren't all that different, actually.
We bathe in the aura for a moment, two modern and changed creatures surrounded by a world of stimulus and sense.
Arch sighs, then, hops back into the car and kills the engine. "Well. That's the last of 'em. Michael, it's been a pleasure. Stop back in sometime and say hi, awright?"
I nod. "Will do." I go back to cleaning up.
"F'get about that stuff, Mike. L' get it in the morning."
Same old Archie. "You sure?"
"Positive. Go home and relax. You got a show to do."
I shake my head. "We've got an early start, tonight. Won't have a chance to head back to the apartment. I'm going straight over to the theatre."
"Well. Whatever you do." He says. "Just take carea'yerself. 'Kay?"
"That's what I'm doing, Arch."
"Understood. Break a leg tonight." He gives me a quick patented Guy-Style Hug (one arm around the back, two thumps) and sees me off.
I leave Arch in his own Empty Space. And go off to find mine.
The route to the Wyndham House Civic Theatre is an easy one through the better and brighter parts of town. I walk the entire distance in a sort of breezy lilt, swinging my tote bag behind me, and in no time at all I am before the building which houses My Stage.
It is only then that I realize that maybe, just maybe, I _might_ still have a chance to go home before the show tonight after all. In a manner of speaking.
It's simply a question of definition.
Resolutely, my head held, high, I walk forwards, through the great glass doors leading into the lobby, nodding once to the girl at the box office as I pass. I make my way through the lobby, and then forward from there into the House. The seats are red pseudovelvet, the carpeting is golden, and the Smell is...
...indescribable. I've tried already once before to convey in words the precise nature of the Smell of the Stage, and as I failed miserably that time too, I shan't do it again. Let "Indescribable" suffice. It's the only word for the job.
Up on stage, I see one of the techies finishing the last pass with a push-broom. He is illuminated by the glow of the obligatory single-bulb work-light that will be, shortly, removed, as the rest of the Crew begins preparations for the night's show. But for the moment, he and I are the only ones here.
Then, he flicks the last scatterings of dirt into his dustpan and is gone. Leaving me alone.
Quietly, I walk to the Stage and swing a leg up, pulling myself to the thin lip of the proscenium that comes between the Orchestra and the House. I stand for a moment, backlit by the ghost-light, and survey the vast expanse of empty seats before me. I breathe for a moment, drinking in the Smell.
Then, I remove from my tote a single, wine-colored circle of cloth, poomph it into the shape of a beret, and place it snugly on my head, taking care to adjust it to the exact precise absolutely perfect twenty-three degree Somewhat Jaunty Theatre-Person's Angle.
It's all coming back, now.
I raise my arms in the traditional posture of Thespian's Glory, and thusly salute the Space and everything ever to be therein. And it is good.
Her smell fills my nostrils.
"Hi, honey." I say. "I'm home."