19 July 2010

Our Best Laid Plans

On Saturday evening, Josh Sohn's short play Laid Plans opened, and closed. The good judges of the The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival (henceforth, "The SFOOBSPF") elected not to pass our little production on to the final competition performances on the following Sunday. Such crumbs fall from such baked desserts. It's difficult to know exactly what criteria were used in our elimination, particularly without seeing any of the other shows in the week-long celebration of the short play. Best not to contemplate it, then. It's like auditions: Do yer best, accept the mess, and . . . uh . . . wear a dress? But only if you're a woman. Or it's a stage adaptation of Tootsie. But I digress.

The SFOOBSPF was a good experience overall, though certainly brief, and the actual performance was not without incident. Due in part to a malfunctioning headset backstage, the booth started the show before I was all set. I had just about ordered my confusion of costume changes and props backstage when the 14 seconds (yes: 14 seconds exactly) of music that cues the start of the play began. I was supposed to be prepped behind a tormentor off stage right, and instead I was behind the backdrop, still without top hat and spectacles. But a moment of panic, a quick adjustment and all was right with the world again. It was only a slightly inauspicious start to an otherwise solid performance.

I haven't written much on the process of this one, frankly because we had very little time to contemplate. The rehearsal period was very efficient. In fact, it had a little more time built in, but we had to recast one of our cast of three after about a week, which in itself took almost a week, and so: just enough time to pull the strands together. In that time, a lot of my process was occupied by some rather straight-forward decision making. By playing five different characters, I was also the only one who exited the stage, which made me the de facto prop manager and scene changer. Lots of time was spent -- rightly so, I believe -- choosing and managing props and costumes. Yet I am very fond of the characters I got to bring to life in Laid Plans.

The first out, as you may have guessed, was not of our time. The play kicks off with a daughter explaining she was named after William "Wilkie" Collins, and shortly thereafter I entered as the gentleman to play a scene of her mother's discovery of his novel The Woman in White when she was in college. It would have been impossible for me to actually imitate ol' Wilkie in his prime, so the director Kay Long very rightly suggested we play him younger, with a certain self-assurance (let's call it) that would come easily to me. I was disappointed with the loss of a sight gag by shearing him of his beard (and to the last and for naught, I held out for a handlebar mustache) but as it turned out, flourishing my cane and doffing a waistcoat, tails and the aforementioned top hat was enough to knock the audience into some good-natured laughter. The character of WWC was a proud, strutting man of manners, whom I really enjoyed filling out.

The next character to play was the mother's lover from her post-college years in New York, who is of course her daughter's father; Thomas Devine. His costume was essentially an under-dressing of WWC's: off with the hat, spectacles, and coat, and there we has, in vest and bow tie. He had some other things in common with WWC in terms of a certain self-assurance, but I tried to give that a different, more innocent flavor. Plus his flair for the dramatic was unique -- he was an actor, day-jobbing as a waiter. The contrast, too, could be played into his more contemporary, casual demeanor. Mostly, what there was to play with him was his obsessions, particularly with the mother character. I owe Kay thanks here too, as she kept reminding me of the morose side of passionate young actors. It was really for me just revisiting, ever-so-briefly, my 23-year-old self in many ways. In NYC, in love, in way over his head. He jumped around and ran his hands through his hair a lot.

Next up was a rather quick change into Jarvis, possibly my favorite of my characters. He was the high school relationship of the daughter: an overweight, weird-n-shy creative type who started as her friend before they crossed a line. Again, it felt to me rather familiar territory. The change was a pretty quick one. Often I still had Thomas' bow tie and handkerchief in my pockets as I entered the stage having ditched my vest and button-down and tossed on a voluminous hooded sweatshirt. I wish I could have seen a tape of Jarvis. The only changes we made to indicate his weight apart from mention of it in the script were stuffing the front pocket of the hoodie a bit, and my walk. I feel like I remember that walk really well, but it would be good to verify that with a little recorded evidence. Jarvis also drew comics throughout his scene, buried in a little notebook, and I used the occasion to revisit my ill-advised forays into cartooning. He was a confused kid, and that confused kid lives on in us one way or another, I think. Nice to find a use for him.

After Jarvis came my role with the most lines and stage time: Toast. (That's what his friend call him.) Toast is a figure from the daughter's collegiate experience, a fellow she meets at a party. This costume was the most stripped down -- just an American Eagle cap, my undershirt (a band t-shirt for Artist vs. Poet) and my slacks tugged down to about mid-butt level -- but the character probably the most affected. It's maybe a tie between Toast and WWC, but Toast was certainly off-type for yours truly. He enters with a couple of those red party cups, master of the party, at least in his own mind. In a way, we was a combination of the postures of Jarvis and Thomas: chest out, but legs heavy and low to the ground, and all of it utterly relaxed. We always imagined that Toast would get a couple of good laughs, so I mostly concerned myself with playing him believably, not making the funny, or exaggerating. I don't know how well I ultimately did, but he got some gratifying laughs, especially on a couple of lines in which he spoke his inner monologue whilst hitting on the daughter (where's my entirely other actor to voice an inner monologue, huh?).

Finally, after Toast was my most frantic change into Alan Stone, the architect and would-be boyfriend of the mother, a fellow from her recent past. This was the shortest amount of time for a change, and though the change wasn't too drastic (tug up inseam, done v-neck sweater, blazer and glasses) I made it slightly difficult on myself by insisting on combing a little pomade in my hair. He needed that precision. Alan, like Thomas, had no lines. Unlike Thomas, he was very precise and actually completely silent, which reminded me a bit of the simplicity Zuppa del Giorno found working on Silent Lives all those years ago. He came to use chopsticks in his little vignette, which was a lovely way of illustrating his personality (and I managed not to drop the damn things). Upright, logical, "not effusive," Alan turned on his heel and left, and thus endeth my run of five.

After my exeunt, the play has at least a good ten minutes left on it, which I also savored. It is, after all, about the women, and I have savored that and the way the action eventually strips it down to just the two of them ever since I first read Josh's script some year or so ago. The SFOOBSPF didn't favor us, didn't pass us along to eternal salvational fame and renown, but I believe we laid out our case for Josh's script the best we could, which was pretty damn good. Sometimes when the best isn't good enough, it only means it's making way for something better.

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