What’s worse than writing for the worst TV show? Writing for dinner theater. 2,182 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“I knew Bret was gay!”
“You don’t know anything,” Mickey snapped.
“He blew me a kiss last night!”
“Actors do that all the time.”
“In a deserted parking lot at two in the morning?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “They gave you a car?”
Mickey may have been dying, he may have been richer than Dolores Hope, but give anybody else a dented Volvo rental or a day-old donut and he wanted one, too – with sprinkles.
While Mickey was enduring the final days of a mysterious cancer in New York, I was trapped down in Neptune, Florida, with the Sam Shepard send-up we’d written together. It was my first foray in theater after four years of uncredited script-polishing in a forgotten woodshed on the Paramount lot. I was eager to see my name on something besides a summons from Traffic Court. The play was purposely “so bad it’s funny”– but nobody seemed to get it except us. Even the Alaska Rep passed despite Mickey’s marquee cred: three Oscar noms, two Tonys and a Pulitzer.
Finally, action/thriller superstar Bret Hardin took the bait. He agreed to produce it at his self-named dinner theater in Neptune. It was clear he hadn’t bothered to read our satire despite his motto that he would never put on a play his mother wouldn’t want to see. First day of rehearsal, after hearing “cunt” seven times in Scene One, he called a powwow of his inner-circle.
“We need another word,” he ordered.
The director, Franklin Scopes O’Malley, a flamboyant sitcom second banana and talk-show favorite, burped up his second brunch martini. “How about ‘clit’? If the grandmother says it fast enough, maybe the hearing devices won’t pick it up.”
Ralph, the head waiter who dyed his moustache and wore a muskrat black toupee to mimic Bret’s, suggested “pussy.” He explained, “That always gives me a giggle.”
Bret’s driver, who could’ve passed for the actor’s twin right down to the exposed mattress of chest hair, piped up with “snatch.” Bret scrunched his oddly girlish nose. “I’m thinking ‘cooz.’ Tell the kid to change it to ‘cooz.’”
“So how’s it going down there?” Mickey wheezed.
“Just great!” I lied.
“Don’t let them change a word!”
I lied again. I was getting too good at it. When you begin to suspect Early Bird dinner theater might be your career’s high watermark, your moral compass tends to point south more often than not. I’d even faked hysterical laughter at Franklin’s anecdotes about Uta Hagen the fourth time around. And I wasn’t losing sleep over it.
Mickey, on the other hand, was born to feast-or-famine silent movie royalty. His mother had been one of those alliterative sirens; she was either Nita Naldi, Lila LaBowe or Marla Mackavoy (nobody except Mickey could remember) and made over fifty pictures before burning out at age 24. Daddy was a director who bellied up to the bars and brothels with D.W. Griffith and Rod LeRoq before drowning in a bowl of Salvation Army soup. That’s how Mickey told it anyway.
As the play lurched toward opening night, we’d yet to rehearse Act Two. I was particularly concerned about the scene in which the 12-year-old son comes home from school dragging a dead friend up to his room for sex. Ralph, the head-waiter, had already demanded a rewrite so that the friend was merely unconscious.
I also was ordered to meet with Chef Anton, another Bret lookalike, who wanted me to cut the toy poodle’s funeral. “What’s with all the death, huh? This crowd can barely make it outta the parking lot. Whose Live Is It Anyway? would never have happened without Loni Anderson. Sure, they wanted to see Loni intubated but they didn’t want to see her unplugged. That kinda stuff hits us right in the intermission dessert carts.”
I was exhausted from compromise. “Has Bret ever thought about taking down the word ‘theater’ and just calling this place ‘dinner’?”
Chef Anton sighed without looking up from the raw chicken livers on his chopping board. “From your lips…!”
“I got a very strange call from Franklin,” Mickey said with faltering breath.
“He tells me you’re a great team player.”
“Uh, that’s nice.” I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“You know what they call team players in the theater?”
“Is it good?”
“Mickey, listen, we open tomorrow and I just want to be sure that…”
“Who gives a fuck! It’s fucking dinner theater! What are the reviews gonna say? ‘They wanted a baked potato instead of the second act?’“
Mickey began coughing.
“It’s our play! Own your shit!”
“Okay, okay, I’ll crack with the whip. I’ll make them put everything back. The poodle funeral, the…”
“Just for the opening, that’s all. The dress rehearsal ran six hours and two entrees.”
And with that, the line went dead.
Opening night. I couldn’t have put all the changes back in if I wanted to. The cast had already called Equity with enough complaints to ignite a general strike. Nobody was speaking to me except one of the busboys, Raoul, another ringer for Bret except for the real hair. His English was sketchy but when I pressed him for his opinion of the play, he told me he only liked Harold Pinter. “No much lines. Catch early bus.”
Opening night, seconds after the curtain went up, a wall of scenery collapsed on the leading lady. She had to hold it up with one arm through her entire monologue about the interspecies mating of the family collie and a milking cow. There should have been accompanying sound effects but the soundman, Franklin’s mildly challenged boyfriend Douglas, became addled in the booth and accidently flipped off several spots. The first hour and a half played in semi-darkness, which had the benefit of keeping most of the enfeebled audience members from fleeing.
But just as Act One closed at nearly 10PM, all the lights came up at once, causing an audible shock. It felt like a lightning strike. Before anyone could make it to the aisles, there was a surprise entrance by a character Mickey and I had not created – the Neptune Fire Chief. Over the tumult, he ordered an immediate evacuation of the theater.
My first thought was a bomb threat. Perhaps one of the cast? Which one? Maybe the stage manager, Eddie, who was going through a romantic crisis and had attempted suicide twice during rehearsals.
It turned out to be a gas leak from the kitchen. No one was allowed to start their cars for fear an ignition switch could spark an explosion that would blow us all to dinner theater hell. I stumbled outside blinded by tears and hoped someone might look kindly upon me. Perhaps a gentle pat on the shoulder or a bite of their “Jack Lemmon Meringue Pie,” my favorite of Chef Anton’s desserts. Instead, I was confronted by a parking lot full of the angriest faces outside of a Klan rally. I was despised. Slow death was wished upon me. I figured I might just as well finish the job and call Mickey before somebody else did.
I’d forgotten what a contagious laugh Mickey had. Two minutes into the call, he was still giddy. Finally, he got hold of himself and with a hoarse but childishly gleeful voice that almost sounded healthy, said, “I think we’ve got another play!”
The run dragged on for another three weeks and oddly enough, the production was beginning to come together. The actors had finally found a bizarre rhythm that earned occasional waves of genuine laughs. It was either Vicki Lawrence or Brenda Vaccaro who, after seeing the play, insisted Bret change “cooz” back to “cunt.” (“Cooz sounds like a noise,” she said.) So “cunt” was in for the final performances. I celebrated by getting excessively drunk with one the Bret lookalikes and woke up the next morning with smudges of black shoe polish on my pillow. I decided that from then on. I would tell everyone I was pretty sure I had sex with Bret Hardin. Hey, maybe I did.
Closing night was my own doing. It was the middle of Act One, the scene in which we’re introduced to the big name star of our play, Pips Bondy, the last of the baggy pants comics. In person, Pips was a dreadful human being with no saving grace. On a Vegas showroom stage, however, he was often hilarious. His signature was the abundant use of confetti following a blizzard of cornball jokes and sight gags.
He’d never been in a play before, but Franklin and Brett somehow talked him into it. Pips was a wreck during rehearsals: defensive, passive-aggressive, nasty. He’d invariably collar me with demands for a complete rewrite. His bulging blue eyes would dart back and forth, a chubby hand wiping imaginary sweat off his brow.
“Where are the jokes? I need jokes!”
They wouldn’t have mattered because Pips couldn’t memorize anything. In desperation, he’d taped his lines all over the set — the backs of chairs, table tops, door frames. It served him well enough through most performances and accidentally gave his character an interesting tic; before he’d speak a word, he’d bend over and squint. The audience, and even one or two of the local critics, were fooled into thinking it was a born actor’s instinct for depth.
Unfortunately, on that final night, Pips hadn’t counted on a substitute intern on the crew who thought all the taped scraps of paper were garbage and tossed them before the performance. Pips was at a complete loss, bending over, desperately squinting and saying nothing. His co-star, who’d held up the set on opening night, was covering as best she could. But it was like witnessing a slow drowning.
As I stood helplessly at the back of the house, I was startled by a tap on my shoulder. There was a long-distance call for me in the office. I rushed upstairs, closed the door and punched in the flashing button on the phone console. It was Mickey’s private nurse, Maureen. She and I had become buddies over the last few weeks and she’d sometimes been the intermediary when he couldn’t work up enough breath to speak.
I thought I would’ve handled it better than I did. I wept. Maureen was kind enough to wait until I’d found a semblance of control before continuing.
“He had a last message for you.” Maureen began hesitantly. “Fuck ‘em all, kid. And own your shit.” There was a pause. “He also said he loved you very much and that he was not leaving you any money. Well, some, he said, but not a lot. He was afraid you’d spend it trying to get all the wrong people to like you.”
I hung up and felt a deep empty pit in my chest, as if I knew my life had suddenly changed forever. I collapsed back in the desk chair and began to focus on the voices coming through the floorboard. The office was just above the stage. I could hear Pip’s desperate attempts to improvise between long pauses as he searched in vain for the missing scraps of dialogue. The rest of the cast had joined the leading lady in a vain effort to keep the play afloat. It was unbearable. I wanted to storm the stage and strangle Pips. But I had a better idea, something I think Mickey would’ve happily done himself. I picked up the receiver and dialed 911.
“May I help you?” the operator said,
“Oh God, this is the Bret Hardin Dinner Theater!
“I think there might be a bomb!”
“I know there is. My husband and I saw it last week.”
“I’m glad you think this is funny, ma’am, but you’ve got to do something!”
“I did. I cancelled our subscription.”
“Ma’am, I am very serious. I overheard someone talking.”
It was a half-hearted evacuation this time around. Many left with pie plates and coffee cups in hand. Most of Neptune had heard about opening night and thought it might’ve just been part of the fakakta play. But it did the trick. Bret had pretty much had it with the production. He was overheard telling the lookalike bartender at the Hilton that “satire is something that closes on Tuesday afternoon.”
I took the last flight to New York that night. The next morning, I opened the Times and Mickey, as I figured, pretty much dominated the obituaries. All except for a small listing at the bottom of the page that announced the passing of an elderly captain of industry named Edward Evans. A chill ran down my back as I remembered the night Mickey and I sat at the bar at Joe Allen’s coming up with names for the characters in our play. We finally settled on one for the character of the playwright – Edward Evans! I know Mickey would’ve loved the eerie coincidence.
Looking back on my dinner theater nightmare, I’m pretty sure he would’ve loved Chef Anton’s “Chicken à la Alan King” as well.