When you can sum up a theater season by saying, “God is dead and I live in a trailer,” it makes you wonder. Whatever the question is, sex is the answer, and at some point this spring, the message passed the tipping point. Maybe it was the recent play that ended with a teenaged character hunched on the floor, back to the audience, as he simulated a sin of Onan according to instructions from his girlfriend (of sorts), who was standing at a safe distance. Or maybe it was the early David Mamet play that ended with the protagonist forced to his knees to service his cell mate.
Listen, I admire jails and railroad trestles as much as the next guy, but isn’t there anything else out there? It got me wondering, and I fell into a reverie. How exactly do local theaters decide on these plays? [Dissolve]
A small room, windowless, in the back of a vast warehouse off Industrial Boulevard. At a long table (chipped on one corner, particle board showing), the artistic directors of Second Underdog WaterPark Theater Center, RODERICK (40s, shaved head) and BECHTE (heavyset, Teutonic, maybe late 30s), sit tensely across from each other, staring at typed manuscripts in various states of ravishment on the tabletop.
BECHTE: If Basil doesn’t go for it, we’re screwed, man. The board says at least one play has to make some money—and look, why this one? Why don’t we do a musical, because that would make more sense with this bim—?
RODERICK: [gesturing, cutting her off] That’s it.
BECHTE: What’s ‘it,’ Roderick? Where is she, anyway? Let’s get this done. Basil gets here in 20 minutes.
RODERICK: I’m sick of even trying to read this other crap. If we don’t do Arvin Crabtree’s Ice Gospels with her in it, I’m out.
[RODERICK pushes away the stack, glances at his watch, and leans back, the front legs of his chair lifting. Hands clasped behind his head, he stares at the distant wall to his left. BECHTE snorts, rolls her eyes. RODERICK does not respond. Suddenly, a distant door opens, outdoor light comes glaring in, and WILLA, blonde-maned, in her 20s, very pretty and curvaceous, emerges from the halo and hurries toward them across the room.]
RODERICK: [standing, arms stretched toward her] Willa! Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my s— so glad you made it.
WILLA: [pecking him on the cheek] Hey, Mr. Prater. Hey, Becky.
BECHTE: [smiling, obviously a little timid and smitten] Bechte.
WILLA: What, hon?
BECHTE: Like B-e-c-k-t-a, except less an a than, you know, a schwa.
WILLA: Oh, so Becky Shaw?
RODERICK: Never mind, darling. Sit down. So what did you think of the play?
WILLA: [sitting down slowly, with a worried expression] Well, Mr. Prater—
RODERICK: Please. Roderick.
WILLA: Well, Roderick, I—as I told my agent—
RODERICK: [hurt] What did you tell him, Willa?
WILLA: I, I said—[bursts into tears then bravely brushes them away]. I said it reminded me of that stuff that grows in a coffee cup when you leave it on the floor and it gets pushed behind your chair somewhere? And you don’t find it until two months later?
BECHTE: [fast] We could work with that.
WILLA: [turning to her] I don’t know why. That’s just what popped in my head when I read it.
RODERICK: [both palms out toward her] Willa, no, no! It’s perfect. God, I’m thinking it’s maybe [coaxing her]—a Starbucks cup?
WILLA: Well, um—
RODERICK: One of those venti ones? Brown cardboard sleeve? So what I’m seeing is stuff growing, you know, off, like, the whole franchised corporate world, our pre-packaged experience. And this would be local mold. Dallas mold. Indigenous mold.
[WILLA stares at him, her mouth slightly open, turning her head a little toward Bechte]
BECHTE: Listen, Roderick—
RODERICK: God, wait—that’s our first scene in the trailer. Picture this, Willa: you’re playing Dolly, okay? You’re standing at the sink. You’re upset because Arvin’s out of jail and the trailer’s a mess, and your mama just sits there all day watching soaps on the couch with her fat lesbian friend who keeps spitting sunflower seed shells on the floor. This is before any of the dialogue. You with me? So you turn off the TV and storm around cleaning up. You’re wearing this sweet little bustier, like the one you wore in the Lingerie Bowl? And you lean way over, facing the audience, way over, way way—
BECHTE: Roderick, the stage directions don’t say—
RODERICK: With that gorgeous, heaving bosom, you know—and—yes! That’s when you find this Starbucks cup with the top still on. You stand up, you’re holding it, looking at it. You walk toward the audience. There’s this suspense. And then finally you open it, right? The expression on your face, Willa—I mean, I’m telling you, you want to do serious theater, you want respectability, this is it. This is the juice.
WILLA: Well, I don’t know. I guess maybe—
RODERICK: [framing the air with his hands] Willa, sweetheart, just say it. Just look at me and make that little word with those lovely lips. Just that one little sweet sigh of a word you’ve said so many times before, just let it go, let me have it from your heart. I’m begging you. Say it. We’ll get the biggest audiences in the history of Dallas theater.
WILLA: Ohh—[glancing worriedly at her watch] Listen, I’ve got to run in just a second.
RODERICK: Just wait a minute. We’re talking about art here.
BECHTE: Art! [catching herself] I mean it’s not like Naomi Wallace, but so? I just want to make sure that—Willa, do you understand what happens in this play?
WILLA: Well, sort of. Isn’t it—about Jesus? The Gospels?
BECHTE: [carefully] Roderick, would you say it’s about Jesus?
RODERICK: [shrugging] Well, sure, sort of—
BECHTE: See, Willa, when Arvin comes home from jail—
RODERICK: That’s me. I play Arvin.
BECHTE: —he sets up a lab in the bedroom and gets hooked on meth—
WILLA: Okay, wait, I didn’t really understand that part. When I was little, there was a boy in kindergarten who had a lisp, and I remember one time he spilled tomato soup and said, “Oopth, I made a meth.” It was so cute! But doesn’t Arvin put in an icemaker? I wondered why it was in the bedroom unless it gets too h—Oh! [puts her hand over her mouth, suddenly blushing]
[BECHTE and RODERICK stare at her, mesmerized.]
BECHTE: [recovering] Well, see, ice is slang for the crystals of this drug you can make from the decongestant in cough syrup. Methamphetamine, meth for short. You get hooked on it, it makes you crazy, and then your teeth fall out.
WILLA: [worried, touching her mouth] Cough syrup?
RODERICK: [kneeling, grasping her hands] But not yours, Willa. Not your teeth. Arvin’s. Arvin has these psychotic episodes, and I make you write down everything I say, because I’m convinced I’m the voice of God. All this stuff about the second coming of Angela Hunt and the Prophet Schutze and the great flood of the Trinity that covers the Bank of America building. And meth makes you very erotic, so there are these scenes—
WILLA: I knew somebody who was erotic! She was sure there were germs on her hands, and she’d wash them over and over.
[A knock on the door. They all start, and Roderick looks over his shoulder in alarm, still kneeling.]
WILLA: Oh, it’s—!
BECHTE: It’s Basil!
RODERICK: What do you say, Willa? Yes or no.
WILLA: [holding his hands, then touching his cheek] Oh, heck. Yes! Why not? Gotta run!
RODERICK: [getting to his feet, pumping a fist]
BECHTE: Quick, Roderick, what else? Let’s say Cymbeline. Nobody’s done that.
RODERICK: And an American comedy—Kaufman and Hart, You Can’t Take It With You. Then, this will be cool, a totally straight Mary Poppins, right after Ice Gospels.
BECHTE: And we end the season with a Molière nobody’s done lately. Let’s say The School for Wives.
[Door opens. They all turn. A bewildered pause when it isn’t Basil. Someone steps inside, stroking his unshaven jaw. The vision coheres.]
Glenn Arbery is a senior editor for People Newspapers and a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].