WAITING FOR MORTIMER
As a playwright and director, I am very diligent about the casting of my precious plays. I scour all the off-off-Broadway productions, regional theaters and college workshops to find appropriate actors for the interesting characters I create. It’s not an easy task, made even more difficult because of the financial remuneration I offer my actors, which is only slightly better than free pizza and beer. But as I tell them, “This will look great on your resumé.”
It won’t, but I say it anyway.
And so I was extremely excited to cast my play: Hat’s Off To You! It was a one act docu-drama based on the life of Armistead Baedecker, the haberdasher to the western lawman Wyatt Earp. In the play, Baedecker reveals little known secrets about the legendary marshall — that as an avid anglophile he has a penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, warm beer and cucumber sandwiches. Even the Stetson hats he made included the fake label By Appointment to HM The Queen.
I had already cast the three supporting roles: Gordon the saddle maker, Festus the one-eyed barber and Molly the saloon keep. What they lacked in talent and experience (and quite frankly their looks) they more than made up with their enthusiasm. But like the man says, “You go to stage with the actors you’ve got… not with the ones you wish you had.”
But as I had not yet found the lead actor, my friend and agent Jack “The Stack” Bullwack called me. “I heard you’re still looking for a lead man,” he said. “Have you found one yet?”
I didn’t want him to think my play was in trouble. “I’ve got a few very talented guys coming in for an audition,” I lied. “But I’m still looking.”
“Well, I know Mortimer Myers is looking for a gig,” said Jack. He liked to drop the names of celebrities he marginally knew. “He might be interested. Want me to hook you guys up?”
Now… I heard him say the name Mortimer Myers, but could he really have meant the REAL Mortimer Myers? The Tony Award nominated critically acclaimed Shakespearean actor who rose from the ranks of TV commercial background talent? I didn’t want to seem like an unsophisticated hick, so I mumbled something unintelligible into the phone. “yhill ummm… Myers..yhill..” Not the best way to seem sophisticated.
“Great! Okay, I’ll call him now and get back to you.” Jack hung up leaving me dazed and startled. Mortimer Myers. He’s going to hook me up with Mortimer Myers. Woah.
Within minutes, Jack the Stack called back. “It’s all set! He’ll be at the playhouse this afternoon at three. He’ll audition the part for you, buddy.” I hate it when he calls me buddy. “You owe me,“ he said.
I stuttered something but I don’t remember what it was, then Jack blurted, “You’re welcome!” and hung up.
I began to fiercely hyperventilate.
The first thing I did, even before I composed myself, was to call my mother. “Ma! You’re not gonna believe this!” …and she didn’t.
Then I phoned Fiona, my ex. “Yeah,” she answered the phone dryly. It had been months since she left me, and this was the first time we spoke since the lawyers. I was hoping she’d be impressed.
“Guess what! Mortimer Myers is auditioning for my play!” I was speaking rapidly with unbridled excitement. “Today! This will really happen!”
“You’re pathetic,” she said, and hung up.
Okay. No one is going to believe me. Not yet. I get it. So I called my three actors and had them come to the playhouse at two thirty for a rehearsal. I didn’t mention Mortimer until we were all settled on stage, and then they were told about Mortimer. Gordon, Festus and Molly (played by Arnold, Reggie and his sister Pam) were excited beyond words at the prospect of acting alongside the great Mortimer Myers.
Props were in place and the scene was set with the red leather chair where Armistead would deliver his heartfelt soliloquy — the centerpiece of the play.
“Mortimer Meyers! I think I’m gonna faint!” exclaimed Pam.
“Me too,” said her brother. And did.
“Get a grip, guys,” said Arnold.
I wanted everyone to take their places on stage by the time Mortimer came. “Molly stands behind the chair, stage right,” I said to Pam. Nothing happened. Pam didn’t move.
“Molly’s right there, behind the chair, I said.”
Still she didn’t move.”
Pam looked up, surprised. “Oh! Right,” she said and she moved stage right, behind the chair. “I’m Molly.”
“Okay now, let’s get in character. Gilbert… uh, Arnold… you’re stage left. And Festus… Reggie… you sit on the floor over there.” Now that I had all three characters blocked, we for some reason became trapped in an eerie silence, not knowing what to say. We all were thinking the same thing — that perhaps we were not worthy of being in a production with Mortimer Myers.
Embarrassed and humbled, we averted each other’s eyes for fear we would… what? Laugh? Cry? Say something dumb? I didn’t know what, and the quiet that kept each of us in our own cocoon was smothering. It was finally too much to bear.
I broke the silence. “Okay, here we go. I’ll play Armistead while we’re waiting. I grabbed the script and sat in the red chair. “This is the part where he’s talking to Wyatt’s hat.”
O! Brave and noble Stetson. Be strong, for you are destined to ride the deserts and plains atop the great Wyatt Earp — from Wichita to Dodge, from Deadwood to Tombstone. And I can only hope and pray you serve him well at the O.K. Corral.
Be good to him, Stetson. Encourage him as he sings a medley from
The Pirates of Penzance
. Do not frown disapprovingly when he puts on his knickers. Humor him as he dines on a Steak and Kidney Pie.
I am but a lowly haberdasher, plying the trade learned from my step father, who learned it from a book. Yes, I took over the business when he went to prison again, but I always doubted my abilities. I hope I built you strong, Stetson. For I’m never sure —
I stopped, for just at that moment, and to my surprise because it wasn’t yet three o’clock, the door swung open, letting in the bright sunlight, surrounding Mortimer Myers, larger than life, lit from behind by the bright rays of the sun. He radiated the character of a true thespian, sure of step and determined in gesture, gliding across the floor as if propelled by an invisible force. With a booming yet controlled voice, he announced himself.
“It is I, Mortimer Myers, humbly presenting myself to this distinguished director — and illustrious cast, I assume — of the next great American play soon to be a hit on the Broadway stage!”
Pam giggled with a mixture of delight and amusement.
“And you, my dear lady,” he said to Pam as he bowed, “To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
Pam was too excited to think clearly. “Uh… I’m Molly. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Myers.” Then she burst into tears.
(So NOW she remembers her character’s name!)
“Molly! What a classically midwest plains name. Simple, of the earth, unpretentious. Lovely.”
Passing past Arnold and Reggie, Mortimer walked to me briskly, took my hand in his and stared intensely at my face. “And you, sir. I look forward to your honest direction, your interpretation of the human condition through this work of art. I place myself in your hands and at your mercy, and I make this promise to you here and now: This play will be the most introspective and cerebral theatrical work ever to be seen on Broadway! Or my name isn’t Mortimer Myers.”
Did Jack the Stack tell Mortimer we were opening on Broadway? For that certainly was not the case. In fact, if we were lucky we would open in three weeks at the Pickle Barrel Stage on Delancey Street, a seventy-five seat theater on the Lower East Side that years ago had offered off-color vaudeville acts from long forgotten entertainers. One could still see posters plastered on the walls for Professor Mendel And His Harem of Fiddlers and a photograph of Gertie and Sam And A Big Fat Kiss.
“Mr. Myers,” I began to say. “I think there might have been a — “
“Call me Mortimer! I insist!” he bellowed. “And then, when you award me the role of… hmmm, let me see that script.” He looks at the first page with the dramatis personae. “Yes… Armistead Baedecker, you shall call me Armistead. For I am a method actor, nothing more and nothing less. We shall never forget that, shall we?”
“No, no. Of course not…. Mortimer.” My mind was racing as I tried to figure a way to let him know we’re not of his caliber and would not be appearing on Broadway. I had nothing. So I just came right to the point.
“Mr. uh…oh, sorry. Mortimer, I think there might have been a miscommunication. If Jack the Stack told you we were opening on Broadway — like in a real Broadway theater — well then, he was sadly… er, mistaken. And if he unfortunately passed that mistaken understanding on to you…” I ended there.
We stared silently at each other — Mortimer with no expression at all, and me with furrowed brow, quivering lip and a very, very dry mouth.
“I was under that very impression, indeed,” said the thespian in a slow, deliberate cadence. “I believe Mr. Bullwack — Jack the Stack as you call him — indicated that this one act play was to be presented at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at the end of this month.” He was speaking in a more modulated tone now. “Was I misled, perchance?”
Arnold, Reggie and Pam looked first at each other, then down at the floor. Pam started crying again, softly.
“No need to answer that,” Mortimer said. “I understand. This is not the first time that Mr. Bullwack told me a mistruth. I’ve myself to blame.”
Again, there was an uneasy silence blanketing us all. I tried to say something, but only guttural noises came from my mouth. I think I even looked over to Arnold, Reggie and Pam as if I were begging them to tell me what to do. Mortimer had turned away and began pacing the room, hands folded behind his back. “Alas, dear cast, I must bid thee farewell and good fortune. For I cannot…” He trailed off, not wanting to offend us, though we knew what he meant to say.
“I understand, Mortimer” I said. “I really do. No hard feelings, I assure you. We know we are not of your level of talent and fame,” I stopped to wipe a tear from my eye. “but we will forever be proud to play the Pickle Barrel Stage in three weeks.”
Mortimer suddenly stopped and looked surprised. Even shocked. “The Pickle Barrel Stage?” He approached me slowly. “On Delancey?”
I nodded silently. The three actors looked at Mortimer, raising their eyes from the floor.
“The Pickle Barrel Stage. Well, what do you know? My great grandparents performed a vaudeville act in that theater, around the turn of the last century!”
He paced around the red chair as he brought back an old faded memory. “They went by the stage names of Gertie and Sam”.
He and I stared silently at each other. I had no idea where this was going, or what would happen next.
“And A Big Fat Kiss,” I whispered.
Mortimer stood still for a long moment. How could I know that he was reminiscing stories from his childhood, remembering old photographs of his ancestors, silently reciting the lyrics that Sam had sung to his great grandmother?
He stopped next to the red chair, picking up the script. We watched him closely as he read the first page, and then turned to the next page and read that too. Then he read aloud, in his deep rich baritone voice, his words reverberating throughout the playhouse.
I hope I built you strong, Stetson. For I’m not sure of my haberdashery skills. But I am sure of one thing: that Wyatt Earp is the bravest lawman to walk the earth.
Oh my! His voice was commanding. He poured emotion into every word, bringing pathos to the sentence in a way I never imagined.
And know this too, Stetson: that I, Armistead Beadecker, haberdasher by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, will one day sing
The flowers that bloom in the spring
at Wyatt’s wedding, for The Mikado is his favorite play.
He went on, bringing life to the script and seeming to enjoy it. Until he abruptly stopped.
I thought he was getting ready to take his leave of us. But I was wrong, for when I said, “Mortimer, I understand why you’re leaving,” he looked at me with a renewed intensity, puffed up his chest, raised his arms and bellowed to the rafters, “Call me Armistead!” He took his position on the red chair with script in hand.
“For I am a method actor, nothing more and nothing less. And we shall never forget that, shall we?”