Seducing the Leading Man is no Picnic
It’s 1991. Joanne Woodward approaches me in my dressing room.
Yes, the actress who won an Oscar for The Three Faces Of Eve circa 1957, (and who also happens to be married to that God among men, Paul Newman) is about to tell me how wonderful I am in a revival production of that 1950s William Inge classic Picnic.
“Mom, what’s so good about bein’ pretty?”
That’s one of my lines because I play Madge, the beauty queen ingénue originated on film by — it must be said — the wooden Kim Novak.
My character falls in love with the blisteringly sexy good-for-nothing drifter, William Holden, and follows him with the lonely train whistle out of that tiny Kansas dead-end town.
This is my big break.
Tony-nominated Broadway director, Arvin Brown, who shepherded none other than Meryl Streep in her first play, chose me after auditioning dozens of New York actresses and flew me in from California to play this part at the LongWharf Theater in New Haven, which is often a launching pad to Broadway.
Better yet, Arvin also hired the man I adore to play the William Holden part opposite me. Aidan. Aidan. Aidan.
I’ve watched Aidan perform in class for over a year now, always hoping I’d be paired with him in a scene. But it never happened until my acting coach asked if I’d be willing to help Aidan work on his audition for Picnic.
Standing onstage every night playing star-crossed lovers with my objet de l’affection was almost more than my flesh could bear. His breath on my skin practically brought me to orgasm. And I don’t have orgasms, so that was quite a feat.
There’s something broken in Aidan that haunts me and draws me to him like a magnet. I want to climb inside his skin. Which, I suppose, might be a little scary for him if he found out. And might make his girlfriend want to kill me.
“Hello, my name is Joanne,” says Ms. Woodward reaching out to shake my hand. It’s just such an honor to have been in a production that JoJo (only her closest friends call her that) attended. To receive a compliment from her will simply be the icing on the cake.
“I just want you to know,” she says, “that every actress who plays the role of Madge is always poorly reviewed. Don’t take any of the negativity to heart.”
What is this sentence coming out of her mouth? My head is suddenly spinning and I feel a bit nauseous, because I think she said something about reviews?
My fellow cast mates and I decided during run-throughs that none of us would read the reviews. We swore an oath! And if someone weakened and couldn’t help themselves they were, under no circumstances, to tell anyone else.
“Negativity?” I ask Joanne. “What negativity?”
Is it my imagination or do I see her eyes flinch then dodge side-to-side like an ocelet treed by Rhodesian Ridgebacks?
“Oh, no. No negativity,” she backpedals. But it’s too late. Did you hear me JoJo? It’s too fucking late!
I start reading the reviews. A torpor of madness overtakes me.
One pompous asshat with no credibility says my acting’s “as flat as Kansas.” Oh, that’s just hilarious. Because the play’s set in Kansas. How droll! I’m cut to the quick, you glib bastard.
There’s also a blaggard who wonders if a tornado flattened my performance. We get it! The Wizard of Oz is set in Kansas, which is known for its tornados. Is this the best you can do?
A third reviewer says I look “corn-fed,” which apparently means I’m fat.
It’s true that I may have gained ten … possibly fifteen pounds since the show started its run. But I was too skinny before! And who can resist Pepe’s world-renowned thin crust garlic pizza?
An actress needs to immerse herself in gastronomic pleasures to trod the boards with gusto!
There is one beloved critic who says my Madge is a “venus-eyed beauty who dances too close to the flame of temptation.” Unfortunately he’s only beloved by me because he writes for the auto-trader.
To make matters worse, Blythe Danner shows up to watch our show with her skinny, anemic looking daughter Gwynn-something-Paltrow – I think it’s Gwyneth Paltrow, strange name — because they’ll be starring in another revival of Picnic just a few towns over in Williamstown, or Williamsburg, or Williamstownburg.
Blythe might be good enough to steal Broadway from under our production, but hopefully the wan Gwyneth, who plays Madge, will be the anvil that brings the whole thing down. She just doesn’t have “It” and I’ll most likely never hear of her again.
I can live with all of this. But on a particularly bleak Monday when the theater is shuttered I go to the newsstand the way a junkie goes to needle park and pick up The New Haven Independent. Tucking it inside my jacket I ferry it to Clare’s bookstore/coffee shop and get a table next to the john where I unfold the newspaper and furtively flip to the Arts Section.
There it is in black-and-white, the Independent critic writes that the chemistry between Aidan and I “lacks combustion.”
Say what you will about my individual performance, but attacking my ability to ignite passion will not stand!
TWO NIGHTS LATER aka DRUNKEN STUPOR
Holy Mary Mother of God, despite my agnosticism I beseech you, where am I?
Where. Am. I? And can you stop the room from spinning?
I shouldn’ta had the tequila shooters after the beer. I hate beer. Why did I drink beer? And then there was that cigarette. I don’t smoke. I’m going to puke. I’m not going to puke, I’m not going to puke, I’m not going to … I puke a little in my mouth then swallow it.
For some reason I want to blame Evander Holyfield for all this, but I don’t know why.
Where am I? It’s Monday. There’s no show on Monday. Am I at Jack’s? Jack plays Howard Bevins the middle-aged “confirmed bachelor” in Picnic. He lives in the West Beth on the Upper West Side in Manhattan cuz he’s a theater actor and you hafta be some kinda struggling artist-type to apply to live here on the cheap and then you gotta outlive the wait list. Which he did.
That fucking Evander Holyfield. Now I remember! I wouldn’t be in this predicament if it weren’t for him. Jack said his teenaged sons-from-the-divorce were staying over to watch Evander fighting some guy.
Who was that guy? I think he was Latino.
So Jack invited all the guys in the show to crash at his pad to see the fight, including Aidan.
I told Jack I wanted to watch the fight too, because I love Evander Holyfield. Sweet Mother Mary I lied. Like you, I abhor violence of any kind, but in the name of Art I have to seduce Aidan. Can you blame the weakness of my flesh when it comes to this man?
Yes. I suppose you can. Holy Virgin.
Despite the moral implications my mission is set. All I hafta do to get to Aidan is descend Jack’s treacherous stairs down to the first floor, after which I hafta claw my way up a freaking rope ladder to the loft Aidan’s sleeping in.
I can do this.
Tenderly, like a new mother balancing twin infants on one hand as she treads a tightrope stretched between Everest and Kilimanjaro, I ease myself off the slouchy couch wherein I’ve made my palette.
The liquids, which would be found – if a forensic analyst were to quickly vivisect me – are several ounces of Herradura tequila, two Bud Lites and a copious amount of my own saliva. They now slosh wildly to-and-fro as the room becomes a whirl-a-gig.
Mary, you Mistress of Kindness and Light — you pure vessel who never would’ve smoked half a Camel cigarette in order to gird your loins for the deflowerment of a man who has a girlfriend back in Los Angeles – I seek your aid.
Please stem the volcanic spume of aforementioned liquids together with a White Castle cheeseburger and Kosher pickle from erupting. Do not let them rise from my gullet again, thus rendering my mouth even more putreficious – is that a word? – and incapable of lustily kissing that young and, I’m certain, cuckolded man in the loft below.
If you are truly the celibate mother of Christ you can certainly grant just this one, small request. Or broker on my behalf with God or Jesus, unless, as some religions profess, God and Jesus are one. In which case you only have to broker an all-inclusive deal.
The room doesn’t exactly stop spinning, but it slows the way a merry-go-round will when you drag your foot in the dirt. It’s a sign. I will try to take the stairs.
I crawl. Right hand forward, right knee follows. Left hand forward, left knee follows. This is like the 12-step program. One knee at a time. Just one knee at a time.
Maybe I should go back to that program? One hand at a time. Just one hand at a time.
“Hey Shannon, what’re you doing?”
It’s a voice. Is it talking to me? Is it one of Jack’s pubescent sons? They can’t see me thus incapacitated. It might damage the pedestal they’ve placed me on, which they never said they did, but you can just tell.
I ratchet down my eardrums in order to detect from whence these sound vibrations emanate. I peer down only to discover my right hand frozen mid-crawl. Who is this trickster throwing his voice?
“You are sooooo fucked up.”
There it is again!
It seems to be coming from above me. How can someone be above me? Are they on the ceiling? Oh, yes. I’m crawling. I look up.
Mistake, mistake, the room careens. How is it I taste yesterday’s bratwurst just behind my epiglottis?
I’ve glimpsed my tormentor as he spins past. It’s Teddy who plays Alan Seymour, the rich town boy who’s supposed to marry that slut Madge until she runs off with the charismatic, sexy, just-down-those-interminable-stairs-and-up-a-rope-ladder drifter.
Teddy’s mouth opens wide in a cackle that seems to last until the very end of time and perhaps, was I religious, even into the after life. When Teddy gets there, sweet mother of God, punish him for seeing me thus, in my degradation. Smite him!
Good. Teddy has collapsed back onto his inflatable mattress on top of Jack’s dining room table. Maybe he’s dead. Which makes me sad. The sweet bastard. I’ll worry about him later.
Hand. Knee. Hand. Knee.
Somehow, unexpectedly, I have gained the lip of the stairs, my Everest base camp.
Do I crawl down face first? Turn around and slide down on my stomach feet-first? Should I try to stand?
I reach for the banister. Where is it? I don’t feel it. It should be there. Unless someone moved it. Was there some kind of construction afoot during the fight? Or was there a banister there in the first place? I don’t remember, oh God, I don’t rememberrrr!
I look up.
The room doesn’t spin, but my hearing goes. All background noises — Teddy’s snoring, the running of a toilet that beckons — become muffled.
So this is the price The Virgin will exact!
I still have my vision. I use it and what I see is someone’s hand clutching what appears to be a banister. It looks very much like my hand. In fact, it is my hand. Does this hand I no longer feel have the strength to pull me to standing?
Oh, how I appreciate the Homo Erectus like I never did before, coming as he did from the sea with nothing but a tail and some gills, evolving over the eons to a biped. My trajectory skyward happens somewhat more rapidly, but just by a hair.
I appear to be standing and my hearing returns. However, what I’m hearing seems to be the tide coming in. Does the Hudson River have a tide and, if so, does the moon have anything to do with it?
I have to focus. Focus on the man sleeping below. Warm in his sleeping bag. With skin I want to touch, lips I want to kiss, chemistry I want to put in a Bunsen burner and ignite.
Virgin Mary? You can go now. Your services are no longer desired. Yes, yes, I know I only call when I want something. That will all change tomorrow after I’ve gotten laid. After that I’ll pray daily. Don’t you have other people to bother?
Oh, there’s the first step. I’ve done it. I’m on the second step. I’m standing on the second step and there are only … one, two, three, four … twenty-four steps to go.
What the hell is up with that?
What’s all this skyscraper bullshit in New York? It’s impractical, it’s … How did I get to step fifteen? I got here so quickly after all that effort to rise … and I seem to be sitting again. I feel a bruise somewhere in my coccyx region. I decide not to investigate.
I blame this all on Evander Holyfield.
I thunk, thunk, thunk on the cornfed pads of my ass until I’m at the bottom of the stairs, sitting on the last step. I contemplate my next move. But I feel so sleepy … if I could just lean my head a little …
When I awake the back of my head rests on the last step and my legs feel very far away. I crane my neck to find them. Oh, there they are sprawled out in front of me!
They’re nice legs. I’ve always been able to count on them even when they were skinny and very hairy. Did I shave? I don’t want to pricker Aidan. My leg hair has been known to hurt rose bushes.
I roll with the rapidity of a baleen whale during hibernation in frozen Arctic waters until my face rests on the bottom step. Thonk. What’s that step made of? Mafia concrete?
Time to move. That’s right. Get your knees under you. Yes, yes, and crawl. Right hand, right knee. Left hand, left knee. What is this ropey obstacle before me? It’s the ladder to the loft. The infernal, malevolent ladder!
Mary? Are you still there? Hello, Mary Holy Mother? Are you there, Mary, it’s me, Shannon?
She hath forsaken me. Maybe it’s a sign I shouldn’t be doing this. The other night when I was caterwauling about Aidan on the phone with my mom she said, “Honey, please don’t make your life about men the way I did.”
And I just stopped. All the spinning inside me, the grasping and trying and terror that I have to make something happen just stopped. And I sat peacefully in the eye of the hurricane …
God, I love my mom!
How can I be nicer to the woman who gave me life? I’ve got to think about that … I’m just going to ponder … that … zzz
When I wake up I realize my right hand is clutching the bottom rung of the rope ladder. Doth sun through yonder window break? I look away from the encroaching dawn through Jack’s grubby West Beth window.
Screw you, West Beth!
With a Herculean effort I pull myself to my knees. Despite my sodden senses I can feel Aidan’s testosterone calling to me. Though he may slumber yet, he knows my woman flower doth languish below.
Is the Bible written in Olde English? I’m twenty-five. I should’ve read it by now.
Oh, Mary, how you tempt me from my path!
I pull myself to standing, my death grip on the fifth ladder rung. Right hand on sixth rung, right foot on bottom rung. And heeeeaaaave. Left foot on second rung, left hand on sixth. And heavvvee. The ladder swings wildly. I cling like a succubus to a bottom feeder. I’m so close. Soooo close.
Rung by rung I climb. With each rung I worry I’ll cave in to gravity and the strange centrifugal forces pitted against me. But still I ascend. I am almost there. Almost. There.
My hands scrabble like frightened mice, trying to find purchase on the loft platform. Using my keen powers of observation I notice the loft ceiling is only two feet higher than the platform. I’ll have to stay on my hands and knees in order not to bang my head. I’ve crawled this far, God knows I can crawl a little farther.
I have one knee solidly on the floor of the loft with the other soon to follow when I see the whites of their eyes poking out of their sleeping bags; Aidan’s … and Jack’s two teenaged sons’. What the hell are they doing here?
“What the hell are you doing here?” Aidan hisses at me.
“We need better reviews?” I suggest.
The three of them stare at me as if I have tits on my forehead. Do I have tits on my forehead? I’m still drunk, but not drunk enough to ever forget this empurpling humiliation.
Mother of all that is Holy and blessed? If you would just be so kind as to help me descend this motherfucking ladder I will, tomorrow, get me straight away to a nunnery.
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