SAGA OF A SECOND LONGSHOREMAN
By Tom Fulton
Fifteen years ago, Sunday, he closed a production of Anna Christie where he played Second Longshoreman. He expected he was cast as Second Longshoreman because he is big and looks like he might have been a longshoreman if he hadn't gone to Julliard instead.
On the first day of rehearsal the director (a young college graduate with a short, fuzzy haircut) said to him: "You have a great beard."
Luckily for him, four years at Julliard, eleven years of scrounging around New York delayed his entry into the LORT market long enough to grow a great beard.
Anna Christie was a bad time for him. He was weary. He could feel it behind his eyes. His career had been his life. Every ounce of his waking energy for the past 10 years was spent developing his contacts, making rounds, auditioning for any paying acting job that he could find; singing telegrams, dog food commercials, summer stock, regional theatres, off Broadway.
He had spent eleven years in New York and now four years in regional rep. During that time he had done four summers of stock which were highlighted when he woofed around as Nanna, the dog in Peter Pan and then played William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. For eight months he had made a pile of money working a soap until his character mysteriously disappeared along with his paycheck. He did six commercials, two of which were national. He had been proud. He had managed for years to keep his head above water and not go the way of many of his college classmates and scurry back home to the family business to lead a normal life.
Still, somehow cynicism had overtaken him anyway. He was a dreamer who lost his sense of direction. Over the years he developed a level-headed approach to acting, to his career. He became the cynic - a proud skeptic. It became his style. He scoffed at new ideas, new directors, new work methods, anything that wasn't convenient to him. He quit rehearsals early, played cards back stage, mocked his fellow actors, pissed and moaned about directors (behind their back), kissed their ass (to their face). "A slug", he thought, chuckling, "crawling into the theatre trailing behind me that old slime of dissatisfaction and complaint."
Then after rehearsal or after the show, he'd drink and pass the time raging about this or that and dream of what he would do when he finally got his big break.
He can't remember exactly when it was when his early hopes quietly evaporated. He thinks it happed over time. One day a long time ago, he wept over a bad rehearsal. Then, a little while later, he was sure the problem was that director - and then that short rehearsal period - and then those horrible bouts with anxiety and stage fright. And finally, to protect himself, he simply stopped blaming anyone. He wrapped himself in the a blanket of cozy ambivalence, where there was safety and warmth.
Whatever yearnings he had for becoming an artist, for tapping that dangerous and compelling place in his soul had now seemed a bit silly - the niave dreams of youth.
"We will somehow do our best to get this damned thing open," said the director of Anna Christie to his cast. When Old Chris asked if he could cut his final speech - ("It just doesn't feel right," he had said.) - the director sighed and said "Fine. Alright."
Like a crewmember of the Cain, he mused that he had driven it out of his directors just as surely as his directors had driven it out of him. Slowly as the years passed, he found himself intently career focused. He called "covering his ass." He needed to protect himself from the madmen that cast him and directed him and paid him. He had learned to not care.
Caring exacted too high a price. It only brought scorn and confusion into every rehearsal. It was only some little spark, long forgotten, that kept him going.
"Bill," said the fuzzy headed director of Anna Christie, "when you enter, remember it is raining outside. So when you step inside the door, run your fingers through your beard, shaking the water off, so that it sticks out from your face. That's right! That really gives him the flavor of what weíre looking for. You guys are great. You really set the mood."
The director said all of this to him with a cigarette dangling from his fingers in the precise manner of most young directors on the way to the top. After that, he never said a word to him.
Apparently, Bill's beard was doing a great job. Bill's script was one page long. It went like this:
- F. Longshrman: (As they range themselves at the bar) Gimme a shock. Number two.
- (He tosses a coin on the bar.)
- S. Longshrman: Same here.
- F. Longshrman: Here's luck! (The other nods, they gulp down their whiskey.)
- S. Longshrman: Give us another.
- F. Longshrman: Gimme a scoop this time. Lager and Porter. I'm dry.
- S. Longshrman: Same here.
After Bill said his words, Bill was to sit and drink for about 20 minutes while the scene with Old Chris & Marthy was played out; then, in a fit of laughter, get up and leave.
Bill tried to invent activity. Bill would play with a match book, or draw circles in the wet bar or fiddle with his buttons, or pick lint off his dirty, coal-stained clothes. But usually Bill just sat there, day-dreaming, fiddling with whatever came into his mind or his hands.
This night, Bill was leafing through his wallet, belting down shots of Constant Comment - getting 'drunk'. He found his driver's license and looked for a while at the picture of himself - a callow youth with a simpering charm - smiling to impress- even the photographer at the department of transportation. The sad thing was, sometimes he thought this picture, which cost him nothing, was better than his resume shot which cost him $400.00.
Bill heard the actor playing Old Chris, Anna's father, behind him:
"Py yimminy! Yust tank, Anna say she com in here right avay!"
"Py yimminy!" Bill thought as he pulled his Equity card out and laid it on the table. "I tank I am von fine provessional actor! Ja?"
There it sat in a puddle of spilled tea.
In bold, old English type it read ACTOR'S EQUITY ASSOCIATION. Below it, his social security number and expiration date when his dues had to be sent in.
Suddenly he choked on a laugh. He poked his tea-stained Equity card with a pen and scribbled on the back: "Hi Diddle Dee Dee! An Actor's Life For Me."
Just then, First Longshoreman slapped him on the back and began to laugh his forced version of drunken hilarity. Bill looked at his tired eyes, Bill heard the familiar intoning of old Chris. Bill saw his crumpled figure with the red beard in the bar's soaped mirror and the tune shot through his brain and he giggled. "Hi Diddle Dee Dee, An Actor's Life For Me"
He began to sing softly to himself, through his teeth, smiling at First Longshoreman all the way off stage.
- "Hi Diddle Dee Dee, An Actor's Life For me
- .Da da da duh, duh,
- duh, duh da da, Hi Diddle Hee Dee"
First Longshoreman looked nervous, which made Bill giggle even more. When he walked off stage he began a little dance, like a jig, then a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo. Then suddenly, the First Longshoreman collapsed flat on his face - not a graceful fall, but a hard, bone-cracking collision with the floor. In one moment Billís partner was shaking his head in disapproval, the next he lay limp, at odd angles on the floor, like a road kill.
At first everyone backstage laughed. Bill laughed louder than them all. And then at once, everyone became shocked and concerned. Bill rushed to First Longshoremanís side and fumbled about trying to perform CPR. Someone dialed 911. First Longshoreman was air-flighted to the nearest hospital. Bill sat with him the whole way, watching his skin turn pasty white and his sad, old face sag.
He was an older guy. They called him Al. He was always friendly; always seemed content; never really expressed himself. He was just there. If nothing else, you could count on Al to be there. He loved candy corn. He used to pass Bill a little handful every night before they went on stage, so they would have something sweet to eat while they sat and "drank". He always whispered: "Take a bow, Bill" just before they entered.
Massive coronary arrest.
Bill read the eulogy at Alís funeral on Saturday and on Monday had a new Longshoreman partner at the Anna Christie bar.
Anna Christie improved after that. Something deep and mysterious wrapped itself around the cast for the remaining performances. People on stage were caught up the tragedy of Thursday night. They stood rapt in the nature of things. Suddenly the sea in O'Neill's play took on awesome proportions and the talk of fate seemed eerily close to home. As Longshoreman #2, Bill drank tea and believed it was bourbon again.
On closing night, the actor playing Old Chris said, "Itís a damn shame, I liked old Al."
"He was such a sweety," whispered the actress playing Anna as she before her mirror removing her wig. And she wept, smearing her makeup with the back of her hand.
"I look at it this way," Bill said a little bemused, munching on a candy-corn he found in his costume, "At least he died doing what he loved!"
In the silence that followed there hung a cloud of thoughtful consent.
Bill felt strangely elated.
copyright (c) 1998 by Tom Fulton
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