The Most Important Thought In the World

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03/23/2009

Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat, Fingerboard Rd, Staten Island, NY‎ 10305

Neighborhood: Across the River, Staten Island

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Those given to make art are probably the least well equipped to handle what is demanded of the artist. The criticism. The egos. The business – because when it comes right down to it, the artist is a salesman, and his art is the product. It’s enough to push a borderline personality over the edge. I expound on this theory one day while my play, “Asterisk,” is in rehearsal.

Cast and crew are spread out in the theater seats before rehearsal begins. I’m sitting next to “The Doyle,” our stage manager, drinking a Venti Iced Americano and going on and on as he nods his head. “You start making art because you have this need to express yourself. It comes from somewhere deep within. The thing no one tells you, is that if you’re gonna be an ‘artist,’ you might as well work on Wall Street. Or, maybe, sell used cars.” Finishing my coffee, I contemplate life. “I’m not gonna stop writing, but I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” I desperately suck my straw, filling the theater with a decided slurrrrrrrrp. “I’m serious, I might just go back to writing and putting it away in my drawer.” My words are a result of the anxiety I feel as Opening Night approaches.

The actors are nowhere near off-book, getting lost, and unable to find their way back. The production is over-budget, burdening the producer/star, who’s sunk his life savings into it, leaving him prone to fits of rage. Things are so tense, that one day, during a run-through, three separate fights breakout on stage. Grown men, in each other’s faces. Ready to throw down. This project was conceived as a labor of love. And it had been going so well. The turning point was when the director, working on a handshake, demanded money.

“Who do I send my bill to?” is how Jason broaches the subject. Caught completely off-guard, Dean tells him that they’ll talk. Dean puts Jason off as long as possible, hoping, I guess, that he will reconsider, and withdraw his request, or, maybe, it’ll all just go away, as arbitrarily as it appeared. Finally, an impromptu meeting occurs between Dean and Jason while we’re on a fifteen minute break from rehearsal. The cast and myself wait silently in the hall, like anxious family in a hospital emergency room. Two of the actors have discovered they have a mutual friend. It’s the kind of inapt conversation, irritating to those forced to listen, that always seems to occur at times like these. When we’ve exceeded the fifteen minutes, a pall settles over the group, for fear the news is not good. Finally, the door opens and rehearsal resumes, and I figure everything’s going to be all right. But as Dean and I leave the theater that night, he laughs. He starts laughing, and he doesn’t stop. It’s the laughter of someone cracking under the pressure.

Standing outside the makeshift plywood fence at the construction site down the block from the theater, Dean’s rambling. Much of what he’s saying doesn’t make sense, but what I do gather is that Jason has demanded X amount of dollars, precisely calculated from the first day of rehearsals through the run of the show. It’s a lot more than we’d speculated. Staring into the pit, it was all clear. Jason had manipulated everything right from the start, casting a Svengali-like spell over the actors, while undermining Dean’s authority as producer, and treating me, the playwright, like an unwanted guest. He’d planned it out to the last detail. Right down to timing his demand so that it coincided with the day we got the fliers back from the printer, his name, literally, stamped on the show. Dean was convinced that Jason, with his icy stare, and bracelet of red beads, was in league with the Devil.

“Let’s pray!” Dean exclaims.

These are the first words uttered in some time. Dean had offered to drive me home, so we could discuss Jason’s demands. Heading downtown, Dean navigating his maze-like shortcut, we shook our heads at Jason’s audacity. Speeding on the BQE, we considered our options: If we paid, it would put us in the red. But if we didn’t pay, and Jason walked, there was a good chance a couple of the actors would go with him, and there wouldn’t be a show. When we started blaming each other, we stopped talking. By the time we drove over the Verrazano and into Staten Island, it was more a matter of who was going to break the silence. “Let’s pray!” is a real icebreaker. I realize Dean’s staring at me as a car’s headlights catch in the rearview mirror, flashing a rectangle across his face. His expression is intense. Eyes piercing.

“Okay.”

“You want to?”

“Yeah.”

“I was gonna take us to this place. That I used to go. That I go to. To pray. Do you wanna go there?”

“If you want to.”

“What the hell! It can’t hurt!”

Dean makes a quick turn through the gate of Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat. As the car proceeds along the black drive, it strikes me that the property is vast beyond what it appears from the outside. We park in the lot of an official building. Without hesitation, or saying anything, Dean gets out of the car. Grabbing my bag, I throw my shoulder into the door.»

The trunk of the Buick is open, and Dean’s leaning in as I come up behind and wait. I cast a sidelong glance at the building. It’s dark. Not a light on. Looking more intently, I search for any faces peering out the windows. A sudden gust of wind has me look up at the large trees that surround us as the leaves turn inside-out. A shiver runs down my spine.

“Can we be here?” I ask.

“Wha?” Dean responds, like the question doesn’t make any sense.

“Are we trespassing?”

Dean heaves his knapsack over his shoulder, and hurries off. Going after him, I descend an embankment, helped by the arthritic hand roots of a tree. At the bottom, I look around for Dean, afraid I lost him. But he’s waiting in the shadows, and continues on when our eyes meet. We walk single file along a trail. With us both wearing packs, it must appear we’re on a mission.

“I’ll tell you what you do,” I say. Given the circumstances, and the dead silence, and the fact that it feels God is watching, it seems like the most important thought in the world. “Tomorrow, you tell Jason to honor his verbal contract. You say, ‘If we have to close this show because of you walking, we’ll sue you for every penny we lose.’”

Stopping in my tracks, I watch as Dean gets further and further away. I have to hurry to catch up. It’s hard keeping up with him. We keep walking till my legs start to burn. Looking back, I can’t see the building. I don’t see anything but trees. I’m wondering if I could find my way out by myself if I had to.

“I’ll take over as director,” I say, as though it’s a difficult decision.

Dean shoots me a look over his shoulder.

“Rearrange my schedule. Take two weeks off of work. Whatever it takes.”

Dean doesn’t say anything.

“Nobody knows the play better than me. Whatever I lack in experience, I more than make up for with my knowledge of the script. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t directed before. I’ve directed a bunch of my own one-acts.”

He still doesn’t say anything, so I force his hand.

“What do you think?”

“It’s too late for that!”

“You said all along that I should direct!” I snap back. Then more rationally: “We’ll fire Jason tomorrow. The most important thing. We won’t even give the actors a chance to walk. We’ll explain exactly what Jason did, how he extorted us. And I’ll pick up where we left off tonight.”

“Now you say this?”

“I’m stepping up, here.”

“I said we should fire Jason after he was late for the first read-through. You said no. I wanted to fire him when he fell asleep during rehearsal. You wouldn’t let me. You usurped my authority as producer. And kept me from doing my job.”

“I was trying to hold the production together!”

“I JUST HAD A KID!” Dean yells, his voice fighting its way through the trees and into the night.

The path finally opens onto a grotto. An immense structure of stone. I follow Dean down some steps and around the other side and through an archway, to discover an ancient evergreen tree, in front of which stands a glowing Jesus. The brightness with which the statue is illuminated has me searching for the light source. There doesn’t appear to be any wires. My eyes turn upward to the full moon.

When I turn back, Dean’s on one knee, desperately going through his knapsack. My heart quickens. How did I get here? I wrote a play. Is my writing so virulent, that this is what it brings out in people? If I make it out of here, I’m done as a playwright. Dear God, if you get me out of this, I won’t write another play, I swear. Dean pulls his hand out of the bag, and the moonlight flashes on…a knife! But then the planets revolve, and Dean’s holding an “Asterisk” flier, which he folds in half, then in half again, and again, like he’s passing a note in class, and offers to the basket at Jesus’ feet.

My shoulders slump as I finally let go of the breath I’ve been holding. It’s a sobering moment, and I’m overcome with the realization that I must now go on with this show. Dean’s praying. Talking rapidly. Some words audible, others lost on mortal ears. He’s quoting scripture, but the gist of what he’s praying for is not faith, or strength, or peace of mind, but for Jesus to come to Jason in a dream and rid him of “the evilness.” Eyes closed, I silently pray for faith, strength, and peace of mind.

   

Tom Diriwachter recently optioned his last play, “Asterisk,” to an L.A. theatrical producer, and is currently shopping his new play, “Age Out.”

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