Now, every community theater worth its salt has a place that the seasoned theater veterans can go to after rehearsal is over for a bite to eat and a slice of pizza or two. Truth be told, there are some regulars who, although they would never admit to it, only stay connected because of the chance to socialize after the hard work (if you can call it that) is over. It’s what gives their otherwise wretched lives some semblance of meaning.
Here’s some advice for you: the local watering hole for actors is undoubtedly the worst pit in town. It has to be, because what kind of decent establishment would allow a cattle of actors through its doors? Only a place most desperate for money, anyone’s money, which is why, inevitably, the beer is watered down, the pizza is usually cold, and the setting is neither picturesque nor homey, no matter how strenuously the locals might insist otherwise.
Such is the case with the Bull Moose Theater Guild. Their watering hole in the wall of choice is a pitsy-ass place called Chow Down, which had gone through a boatload of names through the years. More changes than the book for Anything Goes through the years! The Bull Moose regulars regularly refer to it as Paddy’s Place, which is what it was called back when they first started going there in the seventies. Paddy left the building years ago, my friends—and hopefully, for a classier joint than this. What he left behind was a wretched hovel that made Jamaica Inn look like a Holiday Inn.
To be blunt, even the cockroaches were afraid to stay too long at Chow Down.
Bull Moose does have one unique custom that separates them from the rest. It’s hokey, really, but also rather charming in its own way. At some point in the evening, some member of the group will stand up, raise his glass, and start the group up in a sing-a-long that goes something like this:
And as I went home on Friday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a head upon the bed where my old head should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that head upon the bed where my old head should be
Ah, you're drunk,
you're drunk you silly old fool,
still you can not see
That's a baby boy that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But a baby boy with his whiskers on sure I never saw before
By the end of the song, everyone is on their feet and roaring along with the lyrics—each in their own key, of course. I know! It’s insane! I know, it’s sappy enough to give you diabetes. But on some nights, particularly when a lot of alcohol is involved, it can be rather fun, I have to admit.
So of course, that’s where we all were after the first rehearsal of Sweeney Todd had ended. Everyone, that is, except Danita, who had been forced to spend the remainder of the rehearsal wearing a wrinkled Budweiser T-shirt RJ had discovered in the back of his Corvette, along with a pair of jeans three sizes too big. She looked like an absolute hobo, I am happy to report, even worse than Judy and Fred did in that immortal classic, We’re a Couple of Swells.
So it made sense that the well-coiffed bitch begged off any after-rehearsal festivities and made a beeline home. That didn’t stop RJ from going out, though. He was sitting across the room from me, huddled next to Vern and Vilhelm, glaring and whispering behind my back for everyone to see.
I resolved to pay no mind. After all, no one actually saw me place the cheesecake in question on Danita’s chair. Well, at the very least, no one had come forward to pull a “J’accuse!” during rehearsal. The only person I could think of that even appeared to harbor the slightest suspicion was that odd Bruce Chapel fellow, and he had skulked out of rehearsal quickly, as mysteriously as he had entered.
Innocent with no chance of being proven guilty, I was now well into my third Cosmopolitan at the accursed Chow Down, sandwiched at the end of a long table in a dimly-lit room that aimed for the look of an English pub and barely succeeded in attaining the look of a jukebox joint favored by crack addicts. Even that might be a step up.
At least they made the martinis to my satisfaction. Heavy on the vodka, light on the cranberry juice, indifferent about the Triple Sec, with a small glass of crushed iced as a refresher. Suzie, the long-suffering hostess who had a friendly nature and the haggard look of a fishwife, had long ago learned what port in the storm appealed best to me.
Anyway, I was a Kevin and Missi sandwich. Missi was looking a little cheerier, a turnabout I attributed entirely to the Great Cheesecake Incident. Although she hadn’t witnessed it, she had bumped into Danita on her way out of the Ladies Room.
“She pushed me out of the way,” she whispered to us, sipping a diet coke and trying not to laugh out loud. Her mother sat by her side, crocheting what appeared to be a winter scarf. “Can you believe it? I would have given her a piece of my mind if it wasn’t for the cheesecake smeared all over her ass.”
Old white haired Mrs. Waverly squinted her eyes and pushed herself forward. “What did you say?”
Missi waved her away. “Never mind, ma. Go back to your crochet!” Her mother nodded and went back to work.
“Ah, here’s one I just have to share!”
He said it so loudly and with such determination that we all were obliged to stop everything—even Mrs. Waverly and her needlework—and turn to him. You see, Kevin had the misfortune to be seated next to Peter O’Toole, a long time Moose member who worked in a warehouse by day and fancied himself a poet by night. Occasionally he involved himself in the musicals, if the show suited his fancy. Unfortunately, Sweeney had.
He had a large black book in his hands, which he was furiously thumbing through to call attention to himself. With my keen power of observation, I noticed he had in fact landed on the page he had just “discovered” several minutes before, and had been looking for the right moment to pounce.
Politely...far more than I would have been...Missi acknowledged his outburst. Missi was his second cousin once removed, so she had to be nice. “Another poem, Peter?”
As I said, Peter fancied himself quite the poet. He had the look of a poet, too, with a shock of silvery white hair and a gaunt build. He wore thick glasses and dressed in clothing that was all willowy and dark and loose. Why his wife let him go anywhere was beyond me. She probably just wanted him out of the house.
He fingered his page in anticipation, as if it were a bride on a wedding night. “Yep. It’s one I wrote after Mass a few months ago,” he said, licking his lips. “It’s called, ‘A Mother’s Still-born Tears.’”
“Still-born Tears, eh?” I said, grabbing my Cosmo quickly. “This should be quite a treat.”
Peter cleared his throat. “A Mother’s Still-born Tears, by Peter O’Toole and dedicated to Sister Marjory Malloy of St. Vincent’s Church in Eldredge, Massachusetts.” And then, he launched into his abomination:
“Created in love, yet ripped from the womb
What could have been a genius is now consigned to a tomb
An Angelic baby, waiting for his or her birth day
Now rests in a trash bag, a victim of Planned Parenthood’s
Auto de fe.”
See what I mean? Absolutely wretched. The man’s poetry was entirely composed of clunky iambic penemeter and his subjects were always unsavory. For a devout Catholic, Peter the poet had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. He was in fact a lousy poet, he just didn’t know it.
I stared up at the ceiling, as Peter continued to recite his wretched poem. “Oh my God, kill me now,” I intoned, none too softly. Peter didn’t hear. He was too caught up in the moment.
A tug at my shirtsleeve. “Keep quiet, he’ll hear you!”
“Kevin darling, how do you think rehearsal went?” I asked, bored and feeling the impact of chugging down my third fauxtini.
“It’s an unborn sin, it’s a still born crime,” continued Peter. “A fetus, cut down in its prime.”
“SUZIE!” I raised my arm in the air and snapped my fingers. “Suzie, I’m going to need another. QUICK!”
“It went fine,” Kevin replied, staring dreamily into my eyes. “Although it would have been better with you in the lead.”
Oh, man. The alcohol really was having an impact. All of a sudden, Kevin didn’t seem half as annoying and clingy as he usually id. Maybe those fat thighs of his could be put to good use later on tonight.
I placed a hand on his thigh. But for some reason, the minute I did, thoughts of my recent meeting with Skipper drifted into my head. Me on the balcony, dressed only in my robe, seeing my first bum lover after all those years. Trading small talk, sharing stories, inching closer to those lips that I used to—
Like a bad acid trip, I was abruptly jarred out of my pleasant inebriations to look up and gaze upon a positively glowering RJ, towering over me and looking angrier than I had ever seen him. He was also three sheets to the wind, if the fact that he was swaying back and forth was any indication. Either that, or I was.
The entire room went silent. All the conversation ended, Sallie Mae stopped crocheting. Even Peter O’Toole stopped spouting his wretched abortion poetry, which would have been a blessed relief in any other situation.
This is me, trying to look cool as a cucumber, even though I’m slightly pickled: “RJ, my good man, how may I help you?”
RJ continued swaying and glaring, one hand in his pocket, a beer in his other hand. “Don’t you good man me, you sumbitch. You really think you can do what you did and then come here and pretend nothing happened?”
Cautiously, I set my martini glass down. This was a precarious situation. With the tight seating arrangement, I was boxed in with nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. Carefully, I used my most conciliatory tones, the ones I reserved for raging angry drunks or Marketing Executives. “I’m sorry...I really have no idea what you’re talking about, RJ.”
“You ruined Danny’s dress!” he bellowed. “It wasn’t cheap, either. Now it’s all smeared with strawberry shit!”
Two tables down, Roz called out, “MY home-made strawberry shit!”
Everybody laughed. The natives were clearly getting restless. I gulped. Keep the sweet tones coming, man. “RJ, why on earth would you think I would do something as terrible as that?”
“You told us you’d geteven!” he screamed, letting spittle fly from his lips. Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Vern Slater and Vilhelm walking over to try and save the day. “You said we would rye the day.”
I lifted up a pinky to correct him. “That’s—“ Protectively, Kevin placed a warning hand on my knee.
RJ continued. “You think you were going to make us rye the day, Dante? You’re the one that’s going to rye the day after what you did!”
“Well, actually...” I rubbed my hands together, unable to stop myself. “Actually, my good fellow, the correct word is, um, ‘rue.’”
All eyes turned in RJ’s direction, expectantly.
Kevin valiantly tried to break the mood that had gripped the room. “As in, Mc-Lan-a-han?” he called out, at his absolute gayest. “I LOOOOVE that Golden Girl!”
There was a smattering of laughter, but his gay words did little to appease the bloodthirsty crowd. They certainly didn’t have any impact on RJ. “Rye, rue. Screw you! Let me tell you something, Dante,” RJ hissed. “You’ll get yours.”
I couldn’t help it, I was starting to see red. Or maybe it was just the pink glow from the Cosmopolitans? “What are you going to do, RJ?” I said, foolishly sneering. “Go all ‘Hulk Smash’ on me?”
And for some reason, he actually started to. His face grew redder and his chest started to swell out. He started to transform before my very eyes. “I’ll save the Hulk smash for later, you Grande Diva. Right now, I’ll just settle for...THIS!”
With that, he took his beer and tossed it in my face.
“You ass!” I cried out, feeling his beery backwash oozing around my face. “I could KILL you for this!”
There were cries, and Vilhelm and Vern grabbed at RJ, moved him out of the restaurant, as he writhed about and screamed out obscenities. I watched as Fannie Mae brushed beer off her yarn and Peter O’Toole scrambled to find napkins to protect his poetry. But mostly, I sat there, feeling the sting of the beer in my eyes and dimly realizing I was soon going to be soaking wet and smelling like a brewery.
“Dante, are you okay?” Missi cried.
“Dante, we need to get you out of these clothes!” Kevin cried.
“That’s your answer for everything!” I exclaimed, still possessed of my rapier-like wit, despite the state I was in. Using his sunken shoulders as a prop, I lifted myself up. “I...I think I’m okay...I just need to dry myself off in the men’s room, and then...perhaps, Kevin, you could take me home...”
“Of course!” And I do believe he said more than that, but frankly, by that time I was stumbling my beer-soaked body to the men’s room. Completely covered in alcohol and embarrassement, I needed to find a place to hide for a moment or two...to be free from the knowing eyes of a room that was completely affixed on my bedraggled form...oh, the shame, the horrible shame of it all...
I stood in the mirror, staring at the bleary-eyed wreck I had become. Even with an abundance of hot running water and paper towels, I still reeked of microbrewery. There was no way around that.
More than that, I couldn’t escape the fact that that wretched RJ had humiliated me, unjustifiably branded me as a scoundrel, in front of the entire cast, the very first night of rehearsal.
It was guaranteed to be all anyone would talk of tomorrow.
Despite the fact he had absolutely no proof. No proof at all, not a scrap. And yet, here I was, branded a cheesecake marauder, the defiler of Danita’s strawberry-soaked gown. I worked in Marketing, I knew the power of branding like that, especially when it involved affairs of the ass. It didn’t matter that no one had actually seen me do the deed. Thanks to my drenching, everyone will have sworn that it happened, that of course RJ had every right to do it, that they knew someone who knew someone who had seen me place that accursed pastry onto her seat.
I was through. There was no reason to go on with the production. Effective tomorrow morning, I would call Vern Slater up and—
“That was quite a soaking.”
I turned around, astonished. There, from out of nowhere, appeared the mysterious Bryce Chapel. When had he entered the room?
I had to look up to stare him down, he was so much taller than me. I tried to muster whatever dignity I could salvage from the evening. “I can assure you, I had nothing to do with what happened to Danita.”
Bryce’s blue eyes twinkled merrily. “Oh, come on, Dante. We are the only two who know for a fact that you had everything to do with what happened to Danita.” Before I could protest, he lifted up a long, slender finger and waved it in front of me. “However, we also both know that she had done everything to deserve it. And that RJ has done nothing to deserve getting that lead role.”
You caught have caught flies in my mouth. I was entirely, absolutely, utterly aghast.
Bryce nodded knowingly, a Mephistophelian presence in the midst of cowtown USA. “Come now, I saw the auditions. You were by far the superior performer. The fact you swallowed your pride and agree to be in this show after getting the shaft like that speaks volumes to your character, my friend.”
“Well, I...that is to say. The play’s the thing.”
“Indeed it is, but sometimes, revenge can be awfully satisfying, too.” Bryce gazed at me dreamily and stroked his pencil-thin goatee. “Don’t you worry about the drenching. Most of them will forget about it in the morning, no matter what you’re thinking. Those who don’t will say that RJ was way out of line. It reflects badly on him, not you. Trust me.”
“I wish I could.” Then, the image of RJ, moving forward to splash me in the face. “I wish I could get him back!”
Bryce chuckled and straightened out his dark overcoat. “Oh, don’t worry about that. RJ Weatherlayne will get what’s coming to him, of that I can assure you. Just be patient, my friend. Time is on your side. Not his.”
With that, he winked amiably at me and started to take his leave. I heard the sound of the men’s room door crashing closed, as I stood there, dazed and confused and more than a little unsettled by this strange turn of events. These past five minutes had been a great big red maraschino cherry stuck on this tasteless banana split of an evening. There are some days it just doesn’t pay to rehearse.
Man, was I going to have a hangover in the morning.