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It’s amazing how quickly you can find yourself adopted. But then, I did have a strategy. Before I even finished unpacking. I began hunting down obscure little theater groups, with the object of finagling my way into receptions and cast parties. Which was easy, because I knew the key. There is nothing more life-draining than investing large portions of yourself into a production, only to be faced with some turd at the reception who says, “You know, I’m an actor, too!” And to be forced to be nice to them, because either 1) they’re friends with someone in the company, or 2) they actually paid money to see you.
The road to popularity, then, was to engage theater folk without once mentioning your status as a fellow traveler. Also, of course, I was one hot little chick. Garnering invitations from men was a cinch – even gay men, who seemed to invest me with a sort of Judy Garland vibe.
Two weeks after my arrival, I journeyed to this little hole-in-the wall behind a coffeehouse in the East Village, where they were doing a little-remembered surrealist play from the forties. The plot wound around itself like a suicidal passion vine, but the show was intriguing nonetheless, firing along on rapid patter and brilliant illogic, simultaneously seen and unseen, as if you were watching it under a strobelight. In the end, I couldn’t tell you what had just occurred, but I relished having my head screwed with, and my face was warm with laughter.
The director and lead actor was Joe Green, a strapping young man who was playing (depending on which version of the story you were buying into) either an insurance detective or an out-of-work mailman. His features were extremely Italian: Roman ringlets of black hair, thick eyebrows, dark brown eyes and a generous nose with a boxer’s break. For all I knew, he could be a wiseguy. But he spoke like a director, bits of Bronx breaking through like fossilized ribs at an archaeological dig.
I cornered him at the reception, which was pretty easy to do. Lacking surplus space, they held it onstage, and Joe had enthroned himself on the central fixture, a turn-of-the-century barber’s chair. As we spoke, I commendeered a straight-razor (which turned out to be plastic) and pretended to give him a shave.
“I suppose I should tell you about the name.”
“Yeah? What about the name?”
“From what? Salvatore Frangiatelli?”
I stopped to even up his sideburns. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that name already taken?”
“Yeah. And my parents aren’t even opera fans. What the hell were they thinkin’? When I entered the thee-uh-tuh, I saw my chance. Stage name: Joe Green.”
“Chin up, please. But how’d you get from one to the other?”
Facing ceilingward, he cocked an eyebrow. “You’re a smart girl – figure it out. I didn’t say ‘changed.’ I said ‘Anglicized.’”
Pretty cocky for a guy with a blade at his throat, I thought. I geared up the brainbox and came up with Giuseppe. Joseph. Joe. Verdi. Verdant. Green.
“There you go. Imagine yourself going through life as, I don’t know – ‘Barbra Streisand.’”
“Okay. I get the picture.”
“Because you’re a singer, right?”
“Hey!” I said. “You lookin’ to get yourself sliced?”
“Sorry. It’s just so rare to talk to someone who doesn’t have a theater agenda. And an actual personality. So what is it that you do?”
(Actually, I was delivering for a florist shop – pretty reckless, considering I had just hit town, and was constantly getting lost. But the owners were my cousins, and I was – Oh God – competent.)
“God! I love florist shops. That wall of fragrance that just smacks you when you walk in the door. So… if I’m getting this right, when it comes to the stage, you are an absolute layperson.”
“You got it.”
“So tell me about the play tonight. Nothing you’ve read or heard. Tell me what you think.”
I ran the razor along my teeth. “Knock-knock.”
Joe blinked. “Oh, um… Who’s there?”
That got him. He laughed, and I noticed what a great mouth he had. His lips were thick, like they’d been bruised in a fight. Poor baby, can I kiss it?
“So. What’s your point?”
“Surrealism,” I said, “is always just that close to being a joke. One… vegetable… away. So it’s all left to architecture, and delivery. Give it a solid structure, find some good actors to play it – it can be fucking brilliant. Lose either one – it melts like cheese in a microwave.”
Joe rubbed his freshly shorn (cleft) chin.
“What about tonight?”
I used the razor to tap him on the head. “I’m still here, ain’t I? Chatting with the director? If you really need me to spell it out, I loved it, and the best thing about it was you.”
He hid his face behind his hands – purely an act, because he was fully aware of how good he was. When he peeked out, I could see that his irises had tiny copper-brown chips that flashed when he moved.
“I need you.”
“I’m workshopping a play. And I have had it shoveling the bullshit from the theater-folk with their aesthetic agendas and secret jealousies. I need a fresh set of eyes. What are you doing Friday night?”
I unleashed my most devilish smile. “I’m going to a play reading.”
Joe lived nearby, on 8th Street, a block over from St. Mark’s Place. I was early, so I strolled the cheesy gift shops, sorting through mod sunglasses and dominatrix dog collars (I got the latter for Eddy, betting that he would get some use out of it). I walked into a forest of Indian restaurants, the air laced with curry and tabla music. A dozen locals had set up an impromptu sidewalk sale, arranging appliances and clothing on straw mats and old quilts.
Finding Joe’s address, I opened a wrought-iron gate and descended to his basement apartment. But what a basement! Joe greeted me with a kiss on the cheek (which I took as a promising sign) then led me through a modest hallway of bedrooms to a cavernous living room. You could have a basketball game in there! The furniture was shoved to the walls on all sides, leaving the center to a semi-circle of folding chairs.
“Have a stiff, hard seat,” said Joe. “You want a stiff, hard drink with that?”
A thin, attractive man waltzed in (and I mean the waltzing part literally), his blond hair cut so tight to his head that it could have passed for a shower cap.
“Stiff? Hard? Who’s using all my favorite adjectives?”
“Oh!” said Joe. “Marlin, come over and meet Ruby. She’s the non-acting New Yorker I told you about.”
Marlin samba’d over and dropped a hand into mine. His eyes were swimming-pool blue, parasolled by neat platinum brows.
“Frankly, I don’t believe you exist,” he said. “Cause girlfriend, every New Yorker is an actor. It’s just that some parts are Equity, and some are not.”
“Marlin’s my partner,” said Joe. My brain was running down the list - business partner, writing partner, tennis partner – when Marlin kissed Joe on the lips. Joe replied with a half-serious chiding.
“Marlin! Ix-nay on the issing-kay at the office-ay.”
Marlin grinned in my direction. “I never know when it’s a play-space. Or a play-space. You look like a tough chick, Ruby Red. I’m guessin’ a Manhattan, straight up?”
“You’re guessin’ right, Marlin.” I tightened the bolts on my stiff, hard smile.
Seven actors showed up to read. I was one of three commoners, along with Joe’s banker uncle and Sigrid, a German friend of Marlin’s who turned out to be a high-priced call girl. (And that’s not acting?) When it came time for critiques, I drew on the trinity I learned in college: tough, clear, kind.
“It’s a frickin’ hilarious play, Joe. I really like the dark place that so many of the laughs come from – that is a sweet trick if you can pull it off. You’ve also got some amazingly good visual stuff. The thing about the artificial fangs – I’m gonna be giggling about that for months.
“However, I also think you’re missing a major opportunity. This yo-yo thing between Mimi and Kizer is far and away the most compelling relationship in the play – but you’re pulling your punches, and leaving all the conflict backstage. Imagine the juicy battles those two could have; imagine all the juicy sexual tension it would create. And imagine all the meat this would give to your play – which is a comedy, yes, but a comedy with substance. Have at it, man! Take off the gloves.”
I was right, of course. Joe revisited the whole Mim-Kizer thing and came up with three new scenes (including one in which Mimi illustrates Kizer’s screwed-up behavior using stick figures on a coffeehouse chalkboard). I worried, in fact, that I might have gone too far – that my director skills were bleeding through my carefully painted façade.
I got my answer a month later, two weeks before Christmas, when Joe asked us all back to try out his rewrite. One of his readers – Jackie, biggest flake, smallest talent (a popular combination) – called at the last minute with some fib about a sick roommate.
“Ruby?” said Joe. “Could you read Grady? It’s not a big part – you don’t have to be good at all. I just really need to get a full picture of this rewrite before I get obliterated by the holidays.”
“Sure,” I said. And felt completely unsure.
Grady was the manager of a coffeehouse – twice my size, with a shitkicker pickup and a seven-year-old son. I tried to read her as stiffly as possible. I was afraid that my little flubs might prove too transparent. Regardless, I couldn’t help enjoying the play, which had achieved a perfect blend of tension, release and laughter. I felt a certain stepmotherly pride.
Afterward, Marlin rolled out a buffet table of honeybaked ham, sweet potatoes, bread pudding and egg nog. After quite a few drinks and the departure of most of our readers, I met up with Joe at the punch bowl. I had just at that moment decided to begin greeting him with international variations of his name.
“Jose Verde! Jean-Paul Chartreuse! Yusef Spearmintsky!”
He responded by refilling our glasses and raising a toast.
“To you, Ruby,” he said. “You lying little bitch.”
He said it with a smile, so I guessed I wasn’t in too much trouble.
“Hmmm. Zee jig eez up?”
“The second you opened your mouth tonight. You’re not such a good actor that you can hide the fact that you’re a good actor. It was a noble attempt at mediocrity, but you kept getting carried away by the action and turning into Grady – a pretty neat trick, considering. So why all the espionage?”
I gave him my special squint – the one that’s meant to project extreme distaste. “I didn’t want to be another in the buffalo herd of desperate wannabes. I saw enough of that in LA.”
That last part slipped out. Joe’s eyes grew wider. “LA? ‘Daughter of Movie Mogul Goes Undercover to Conquer Broadway’?”
I cringed. “Casting director.”
Joe held the back of his hand to his forehead, very Scarlet O’Hara.
“You are a certifiable grab bag, Ruby. If that’s your real name.”
“Yes it is,” I said, laughing. “I’m sorry. But your play, Joe. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s exactly the kind of thing I came here for.”
“Well good,” said Joe.
There was a secret context to those two words, but before I could ask, Joe fled the room. He returned with two metallic skewers and a candle.
“Good why?” I asked.
“Good because… I wouldn’t want you to get bored if we have an extended run.”
“We open on Valentine’s Day. And I want you to play Melissa. Do you know why?”
“No?” I think I was starting to cry.
“Because Melissa is also a lying, deceptive little bitch. But wait! Don’t say yes. We have a certain way of doing this. It’s kind of gay, but so am I. Take this.”
He handed me one of the skewers, which was covered with a substance that looked like tile grout. Joe lit the candle, then directed the tips of the skewers into the flame until they began to shoot out sparks. Then he raised his right hand.
“Do you, Ruby Cohen, vow to play the part of Melissa, in sickness and in health, through good reviews and hatchet-jobs, till closing night do you part?”
I raised my right hand and gazed into Joe’s Apollonian features through a film of tears and a shower of golden meteorites.
Photo by MJV