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DEAR BRUTUS: This theatre jones is COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY!
In part 4 of PLAY PRODUCTION FOLLIES:
> THE MALE ANIMAL: It’s Not Kevin’s Time to be TOP DOG
. Come the fall of 1973, I was a high school senior. For two years I’d suffered silently under the unofficial but very real code of seniority, when it came to casting the lead roles. These, pretty much always went to students who had worked their way through the ranks from Beginning Acting through to Play Production. So far, I had always been relegated to character parts. Ironically, these are often juicier roles than the leads, but this doesn’t silence the little child within who used to dance spasmodically and yell “Mommy! Daddy! Look at Me! LOOK AT ME!” Even if the lead roles weren’t as fun to do, the prestige of being cast in them made up for it. There was something about being at the center of it all, being the protagonist or even the romantic lead. (Hey, why not? As I recall, I wasn’t hideous at 17. A little awkward maybe…) Finally getting to play a lead character was a reward for enduring the torture of LADY PRECIOUS STREAM, and the thankless role as Soldier #2 in THE TROJAN WOMEN, and taking minor parts in THE MISER and OUR TOWN, and filling in on short notice in THE LONG STAY CUT SHORT, not to mention the horror of DEAR BRUTUS, that painful J.M. Barrie bomb! After two years of this, I had surely paid my dues!
. As the ‘star’ of the department (by simple attrition) I felt pretty confident that the seniority system that had always worked against me would finally work my way. This was a good thing when I saw Ms. Motter’s choice of play. James Thurber’s THE MALE ANIMAL really only had one good male role- at least, one that I could reasonably play: “Tommy Turner”. Even better, the character seemed perfect for me: a gentle college professor who is viewed as a girly-man and challenged to find ‘the male animal’ inside him. Tommy barely left the stage, and he had a great drunk scene near the end. What I had not counted on, was formidable competition from talented upstart Rick Sparks…
. Rick and his delightfully wacky cousin Diane Delano were fused at the hip, like conjoined twin entertainers. They were both in eighth grade and very popular because they were great fun. They had their own contingent that was very loyal and supportive, and seemed to bask in their afterglow. I guess I was a little jealous of this. Most of the people I thought of as my drama peers had graduated, leaving me to fend for myself. Because of the age difference and the fact that we were obviously competing for the same roles, most people seemed to just assume there was animosity between Rick and I. Seeing clearly the difference between competition and animosity, I never understood this. It’s not like we were close, but I really liked Rick. Under a veneer of brash showmanship that seemed a little superficial, I saw a really sweet guy. And I just adored Diane. She was, as they say when struggling to convey the uniqueness of a person: “one-of-a-kind”. Diane was a big girl- not plump, but built like a bricklayer, a plain but spunky American gal with wavy blond hair and a ready laugh as big as all outdoors. Always “on”, Diane made a goof of everything, using broad comedy and innuendo to keep everyone in the room amused. She was a bit of a female Jerry Lewis- silly and goofy and prone to fractured physical business- her eyes and voice wonderfully expressive. She was always manufacturing comic characters that could have been the work of Carol Burnett. Rick by contrast, was a potential leading man type- pert, handsome, energetic and musically talented with a good sense of timing. They riffed constantly between them, seeming to feed off each other in a beautiful way, in some delightfully witty exchanges.
. Well, come tryouts for THE MALE ANIMAL, when Rick auditioned for the same lead I so coveted, I wasn’t that concerned. Sure his audition was at least as good as mine- but I was a senior. I had the part of Tommy Turber, didn’t I? It was my turn to be Top Dog, right?
. I will admit to being broadsided, when casting was announced. It was a decision my young mind could just not accept. I raised my hand in immediate protest. Predictably, Ms. M. did not see things my way, explaining that Rick got the part because Rick gave a better reading. But she did agree to let me redo my audition. If I could knock it out of the park and dazzle her with my perfect performance, she was willing to reconsider. (Looking back, this was a lot! Charlotte would not have said yes if she did not think that maybe- just maybe I was up to it. Why raise my hopes fruitlessly only to see them dashed? She was not that kind of person. And worse- much worse I think, would be being put in the position of having to take back the role that was already offered Rick, should I miraculously succeed in wowing her. But Rick agreed to this arrangement, bless his heart- though he may not have felt he had a choice.
. I worked hard on the drunk scene all weekend long- going so far as to memorize all the lines so I was primed to kick ass on Monday. But here’s the thing: I was 15. I had never been drunk… yet. (That adventure was very soon to come!) I had no fucking idea what I was doing! It was buffoonery, really. What I did was thoughtlessly regurgitate all the clichés of drunkenness I had seen in old Hollyweird movies and classic cartoons: the slurred speech, the swaying stance, the swaggering bravado- I probably even hiccoughed. Was I better this time? No. Actually, I was worse. Poor Rick breathed a sigh of relief.
. When the smoke cleared, I was relegated to the bland, cardboard part of staid stuffed-shirt Dean Damon, faculty bore. There was nothing to him. I began to wish I hadn’t wasted the semester in drama, and began seriously considering just dropping out. I was glum and mopey for a while, before I decided to ignore the indignity of my well-deserved rebuke and get on with it, although with something less than enthusiasm. I decided to make a game of it, copping an attitude of good times and good humor. What else could I do? Better luck next time, Kevin.
. . .
. Thankfully, I do have one golden memory of this show, sweetening the lingering taste of bitterness THE MALE ANIMAL evokes. It is the party scene, where I both acted and acted-out in my usual defiant way. To make this scene feel real, Ms. Motter wanted the actors playing the party guests to generate the authentic buzz of conversation by having authentic conversations, quietly of course- too quietly to be discerned above the dialogue. If we couldn’t manage this we were to just mumble “buzz buzz buzz” back and forth to simulate it. The night of the evening performance, I decided to see what I could do to make Diane bust out laughing.
. As is typical of a fine (now successful) character actress, Diane was able to take the small part of the maid and make it humorous enough to generate laughs, with lines like: “Hor d’oeuvres, anyone?” pronounced as: “HORSE DE-OVERS, ANY-ONE?” in a braying hillbilly accent that was very unlikely for a servant of her station- but very, very funny. As the terminally stuffy Dr. Damon, I arrived at the “party” with my lovely wife, a pretty young redhead with shiny skin. When Diane answered our ring at the door, we had a bit of business that consisted of a familiar greeting, the taking of personal items and the bringing of cocktails. We had done it twice before. We call knew the drill. But this time, I greeted Diane with a wide grin and planted a big smooch: SMACK on her surprised lips! Needless to say, the reactions of Diane and my tiny redhead “wife” were very genuine indeed, and not studied or rehearsed in the least. Struggling to regain her composure, Diane said: “Uh… Welcome to the party doctor- Mrs. Damon. And how have you been?”
. “Irritable!” I barked softly. “My wife won’t fuck me anymore so I’ve had to go to secret campus swing clubs to get laid.”
. Both girls gasped and blushed. My small, quasi-matrimonial redhead had instantly transmorphed from pale strawberry to beet red from the forehead down. As Diane took my coat, I whispered into her ear: “You don’t swing, do you, sexy mama? I could take you six ways from Tuesday!”
. Diane’s face expanded like a balloon threatening to pop. She kind of grabbed herself down below and doubled over as though stricken with a sudden stomach ailment, racing offstage with our hats, coats and umbrella. And she never returned. She was supposed to be in the rest of the scene, serving finger-food and seeing to the guest’s needs, but when her big line came, she yelled it onstage from the wings: “HORSE DE OVERS ANY-ONE?”
. I had made Diane laugh so hard, she had wet herself a little, and was too embarrassed to go back onstage lest anybody notice. Success!
In all likelihood, Kevin becomes the first white boy in the world to play great American “Negro” writer James Baldwin, when he worships at THE AMEN CORNER!
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.