Over the next couple nights my rehearsals are rote, while those performing real jobs barely have time to stand still before some tumult pushes them forward again. I tell no one of my pre-show fluffing scheme to subtly grease this drama’s wheels before the curtain rises. Whenever I see Todd backstage, I am compelled by a fear of silences to ask him some banal procedural question: am I leaving the theater too quickly? Too slowly? Too late or too early? Todd dismisses every worry with a slight wave and a grin. By the time Wednesday rolls around we’re exactly a week from opening and a single day before our first official preview. But when I arrive I find the lobby teeming with two dozen well-dressed yuppies clutching programs and brimming cups of beer and wine. This, I learn from the house manager, is ‘The Crew’, a boozy cadre of wealthy twenty- and thirty-somethings who pay a fee to slip into the theater prior to the first preview run. My stomach flutters at the sight of them. I hadn’t expected an audience until tomorrow. Tonight will be my first official performance.
I duck backstage through an employee’s door and jog straight to my dressing room. Taped to my changing mirror is an actual theater ticket, seat B9. Attached to the ticket, a yellow sticky reads, “For the strange man”.
I re-emerge, costumed and coy. The Crew is buzzing, booze in plentiful supply, served from a large plastic tub filled with ice and sitting on the floor of the lobby, whetting their tongues and watering their eyes. I slink through the crowd, now some forty people deep. Snippets of overheard chatter indicate that I am embedded in a group of financial consultants, lawyers, and marketers. It’s not long before a woozy woman in her late-thirties begins chatting me up, grinning through her questions despite my attempts to hide in a corner of the lobby, my nose buried in a program. In a few nervous sentences I tell her that I live in Spokane, that I’m a law librarian working for the Eastern Washington U.S. Attorney’s office, and that I’m in town on business. So what am I doing at the theater? I have a friend, I tell her, who managed to sneak me in. This biographical sketch seems to satisfy her, and within moments she steers the conversation into an explanation of the benefits of Crew membership.
The lobby lights flash, indicating five minutes to show, but few pay any attention. The revelry runs on until the last possible moment when the house manager, desperate to corral everyone into his or her seat, drags the tub of booze into a nearby closet. When I sit in my appointed seat, the woman and her male companion plop down beside me, all winks and nods.
Five minutes after the play is scheduled to start the lights are still up and I still haven’t decided which tale from my arsenal of woe I plan to weave for my neighbors. My stomach is churning, so faking an illness seems like the smartest move, but this is the one act that requires a subtle build up. The house lights abruptly fade and the audience hushes. A pre-recorded announcement asks us to please turn off our mobile phones and unwrap any hard candy we may have. On an impulse, I begin patting myself down, pocket to pocket, before slipping to the edge of my seat to search the floor. This catches the attention of the woman beside me. As I’d hoped, she cannot resist comment.
“What’s the matter?”
“Have you seen a phone? I think I dropped it.”
“I haven’t seen anything, no.”
She slides forward to help me search. Our heads nearly collide for lack of space. Her companion leans forward.
“He lost his phone,” she tells him.
“What kind?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I moan. “I feel awful.”
“Drinking on an empty stomach….” I mutter.
The woman wrinkles her face and winces for me. Worried that I might already have oversold my predicament, I am thankful when the play begins. In the dark, I recede into my seat, occasionally resuming the search for my lost phone with subtle pats, nods, and feints. When my cue comes I rise, my eyes down and deferential, my velocity constant. The woman flinches, and after a moment of hesitation pulls her legs aside. I step nimbly over a five or six pairs of shoes and shuffle to the exit. The word “Cunt” reverberates just as I reach the exit. The door squeaks open and I exit. Done.
Once in the lobby I veer sharply into the lighting booth to watch the rest of the production. I have already sat through the play a few times, but tonight I am keen to witness the audience’s reaction. When the play is over an hour later I slip into the lobby to eavesdrop on the afterchatter. This reveals a level of confusion about the play I hadn’t expected: “I don’t know much about Thomas Paine,” one man admits, pained. “I think he was a founding father. But the play didn’t say anything about the revolution.” “How could that guy inspire any one person, much less a whole country?” wonders another, “He's a pretty miserable man.” The woman from the Crew spots me lurking and waves me to her. To my surprise she asks only if I am feeling all right, and seems totally unfazed by my presence, despite the fact that I’d fled over an hour earlier and that I am now outfitted in my own clothes, looking bookish, dusty, and unemployed. Her genuine concern almost leads me to a confession, but I stick to my story.
“Much better,” I nod, pulling my mobile from my pocket. “And I found my phone.”
Return to Part III / Read Part V