By Scott Ross
January, 1984. A quondam fellow player and uneasy friend — we met during rehearsals for the first southeastern production of Sweeney Todd, at St. Mary’s College in Raleigh in 1982 — is holding auditions for his second production of P.S. Your Cat is Dead. Victor’s persona is one I am never quite certain I really like, and while we share a great many interests in common (theatre, musicals, movies, men) and while he is capable of great kindness, I find him in many ways appallingly spoiled, strikingly closed-minded, overly theatrical and verging on the obnoxious if not actually tipping over and wallowing.
I had been flattered, a year or so before, to be asked by Victor to play the male role in Leonard Malfi’s odd one-act two-hander Birdbath for a course on directing he was taking at N.C. State, and which went well enough even though I neither cared for the play particularly nor enjoyed performing in it. I don’t recall his being an especially insightful director, but he was relaxed enough (for Victor) I also don’t remember any special tension during rehearsals. Still, I wasn’t eager to spend the requisite month and a half of weeknights in his company. In addition, I was going through an extremely rough patch in my own life, having recently been canned from a job and subsisting on a dispiriting diet of temp jobs, car-less and anxious about my future. I had also, after 11 years of occasional acting, grown vaguely dissatisfied with the avocation and simply did not relish the prospect of once again trodding them well-worn boards.
There was another reason for me to be wary: As a teenager I had read Kirkwood’s later novel, based on his play, and went on to read most of his books. While Cat, as a novel, strongly indicated a looming romance between its leading (male) characters, the bisexual burglar Vito and the seemingly heterosexual actor Jimmy Zoole, it’s the only one of Kirkwood’s fictions to embrace that possibility: In Some Kind of Hero, the single overt homosexual coupling is born of terror, and not repeated. In There Must Be a Pony, the central character’s sexuality is pretty much ignored. And in the dread Good Times, Bad Times, and despite the Separate Peace-like closeness between the two adolescent male protagonists, actual homosexuality is acknowledged only in attempted rape of one of them by an unhinged ephebophile. (And fuck you, WordPress Spell-checker; if I’d wanted to write, “pedophile,” I would have done so.) In American Grotesque, Kirkwood’s account of the questionable prosecution by Jim Garrison of Clay Shaw for the murder of JFK, the authorial “I” only gets near the sexual act in approved, heterosexual, circumstances, when — or so he would have us believe — he succumbs to one of New Orleans’ more persuasive, female, prostitutes. Something in Kirkwood seemed ashamed of his own sexuality, and when he revised Cat as a play, and despite the bisexual Vito’s desire for it, the author removed all inferences of something homoerotic occurring between Vito and Jimmy. So I had begun to distrust Kirkwood’s more-than-somewhat hypocritical prudery on the subject.
But to continue…
On the Sunday night of Victor’s Cat auditions, my best friend Mike and I made certain we were nowhere near the theatre. Would that we had gone somewhere other than my apartment. Algiers, possibly. ‘Round about nine, Victor called. As I was renting the upper floor of his elderly aunt’s home and had no telephone of my own, I couldn’t very well pretend I wasn’t there. Very few actors had shown up for read, he said, and would Mike and I pleasepleaseplease come down to the theatre and audition?
And were duly cast: Myself as Jimmy Zoole (the out-of-work actor whose girlfriend has just left him, on New Year’s Eve; who subdues the burglar who has broken into his home for the third time; who ties the hapless felon to the kitchen sink of his studio apartment; and whose eponymous feline is ailing at the veterinarian’s) and Mike as the new interest of Jimmy’s ex.
We were not exactly thrilled by the news.
Cast as Vito, the hapless house-breaker, was Victor’s friend Chuck Morton. I didn’t know Chuck and had never seen him perform, but he had played Jimmy in Victor’s previous production of the play and was now essaying (or is it “assaying”?) the other lead. That this endeavor was not going to be a garden-party was brought home to me on our first rehearsal. Victor chose to meet with Chuck and me solely, to discuss the play and the roles and what he wanted from this production. Since Jimmy and Vito are on-stage almost constantly — alone together, for the most part — this seemed eminently reasonable. Until, that is, Victor kicked off the proceedings by reading aloud to us a newspaper review of that earlier show, emphasizing every negative anent Chuck’s performance as Jimmy.
His rationale was that Chuck had been miscast; that he, Victor, had himself not conquered the problem; and that this was what he wished to avoid now.
I was appalled. I don’t care much for deliberate cruelty, and this seemed to me unconscionably cruel. Had Victor said these things to Chuck in private, that would have been a different matter. But exposing my co-star, whom I had just met, to a string of unflattering critical observations with me in the room was not a move calculated to win me over. I was deeply embarrassed for Chuck, and shamed for myself, sitting there listening to it.
It went downhill from there.
Victor’s penchant for indulging his short temper, a quality I did not care for in his personality, reached its nadir one night a week or so before we opened. We were rehearsing the moment, shortly to cost me dearly, when Jimmy discovers Vito’s handgun on the kitchen counter. He picks it up and, being an actor, plays with it: He aims the gun and presses the trigger. Click. Encouraged, he aims again. Click. A third time. Bang! The unexpected recoil puts him on his ass. I no longer recall whether Kirkwood wrote it this way in his script, but Victor blocked my actions as follows: First empty round, hold the gun out with one hand. Second empty round, aim it over my shoulder like an over-confident sharp shooter. And, for the “bang,” hold it in both hands and strike a pose out of some crime thriller. Simple enough, and reasonably clever. I went through the motions in what I thought was a fairly fluid series of movements. Wrong! Again. Wrong! Finally, Victor demanded, with rising inflections that indicated his annoyance at me, that I count to three for each pose.
Already frazzled, and liking my erstwhile friend less and less by the minute, I had what, for me, constituted a rare moment of public rebellion, no doubt fueled by mounting frustration on any number of fronts. I am normally easy with direction, and seldom show temperament in the theatre except when goaded by commands I either don’t understand, or to which I take strong exception. (I had a similar blow-up on Sweeney during the final dress. I had been trying, without success, throughout rehearsals to get the musical director to help me over that, for me, exceptionally high note on the lyric, “But in tiiiiime…” in “Not While I’m Around.” When I got to it, and faltered and he said, “Use your falsetto voice,” I instantly snapped, “I don’t have a goddamn falsetto voice!” Which, if you’ve never used one, is true enough.) But, in general, I maintain a placid temperament with the people with whom I work, and do not like it one bit when others fail to extend that basic courtesy to me in turn.
My reaction to Victor’s command, spoken with smugness that verged on a sneer, may have been somewhat childish, but I suddenly felt less like an actor than an automaton. I posed, pointed, and spoke, mechanically: “One, two, three.” Posed and pointed again: “One, two, three.” Again, dully: “One, two, three.” This precipitated a screaming fight, the memory of which I do not enjoy and which did credit to neither of us. When Victor remonstrated loudly and without the gloves, I shot back something on the order of, “If you want a robot, get one to replace me!” and stormed out of the hall.
I was quite seriously on the verge of throwing it up. I’d never quit a production before, no matter how miserable I may have been, but this was shaping up to be a major disaster. The less salutary features of Victor’s character were, as happens when a friendship is peaking and about to go into decline, dominating my apprehension of him: When one begins to fall out of love — and a close friendship is in its way very like a romance, without the eroticism — one is finally left only with what one dislikes about the loved one. And there was little about Victor I still liked, let alone loved. Somehow he talked me back into the rehearsal space, and we went on, albeit with very little energy or enthusiasm on my behalf.
As I’ve said, one of Victor’s least salient qualities was a penchant to over-react. More than once I’d been the recipient of an elaborately set-up presentation of some movie or other on laser disc at his parent’s house — although in his 30s, he was still living at home — until the day I finally sighed, “Victor, do you have to make a production out of everything?” The theatre was small, so Victor’s loud sighs from the audience when he was displeased were as audible as the actors on the stage. And, as I was wearing contact lenses at the time, I was also treated to his wildly emphatic body-language. On the final dress, when either Chuck or I — I no longer remember which — skipped a page or two of rather crucial (and complex) dialogue, Victor’s displeasure was as plain to me as my co-star. It was only through the intervention of one of his actor friends that he refrained from stopping the rehearsal cold and forcing us to go back; she, wisely, restrained him, reminding him that, once we opened and were performing for an audience, we would have to find our way back in real-time, flop-sweat and all.
At the final dress, Victor got his quiet vengeance. In reverse order of importance, the characters in P.S. Your Cat is Dead are as follows: The ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, the ex, and, sharing equal weight, Jimmy and Vito. Partly because Victor was enamored of the notion of my being seen typing at a desk (composing my new novel, presumably) as the lights came back up after the final fade and largely, I think, to get at me, I had in essence the first bow. The least, in other words, of four. (Chuck enjoyed the final bow, by himself.) Being assigned first bow is a humiliation I endured twice in my brief acting life, both as the final fruit of friendships hanging in tatters. It’s an insulting, deliberately demeaning thing to do to a performer — and, trust me, the actor knows he’s being humiliated.
But there was more horror yet. The worst, in fact, I’ve ever encountered on a stage, because its effects still dominate my life.
As Victor was producing Cat at a certain theatre in Raleigh, from which entity he’d rented the stage, we were given, as part of the deal, its usual property mistress, Maureen. (Her name has not been changed to protect the guilty.) I was no great fan of this woman, although she’d done me no harm… yet. What bothered me about her was that she allowed herself to be a living door-mat to, and all-purpose gopher and babysitter for, the theatre’s artistic director. He, who, for once, shall go nameless — all three of them — was (and is) an astounding megalomaniac, the classic big fish in the very small pond that was Raleigh theatre at that time, and (along with his then-wife, who admittedly was one of the area’s better actors) a fabled user of others. Maureen, then, could always be counted upon to drop everything in her own life and rush to take care of the pair’s spoiled, bratty young son. She seemed to have little identity outside the reflected glow of their somewhat dust-mottled limelight.
I mention all this for a reason. (Wait for it, wait for it!)
It was, then, Maureen’s job to load the handgun I would be using in the first act properly, with two empty chambers and one, strategically placed, stage blank. Now, I no longer remember which night during our two-weekend run this occurred, but I can vividly recall that, as I raised the gun over my shoulder and pulled the trigger, expecting the click, a mind-numbing explosion detonated next to my ear. I had the presence of mind, comprehensible to almost everyone who’s ever performed on a stage, to react in character, reversing my usual pratfall in favor of a drop forward. But the remainder of the act was experienced by me in a state close to shock — my ear throbbing, every noise on that stage perceived as if through a filter of lead.
This accident is surely forgivable, and would be… if accident it was. I’m not wholly persuaded of that fact. My reasons for what is admittedly a somewhat paranoid doubt are two-fold: a) I was at that time a theatre reviewer for a local weekly, and as such not beloved by many, and certainly not by [Blank-Blank-Blank]; and b) a few nights later, it happened again: The gun once more mis-loaded by Maureen… who was not, to my knowledge, ever notably incompetent or mistake-prone and who would do anything, anything at all, for [Blank-Blank-Blank].
Once, as Ian Fleming observed, may be happenstance; twice, in this instance, omits coincidence and heads, rather pointedly, straight to what Fleming referred to as “enemy action.”
I didn’t know, at the time, just how much damage Maureen’s little “mistakes” had done, to my hearing and to my equilibrium. My balance has never been what it was before, and I am the unhappy recipient of an increasingly maddening case of tinnitus: What is, most euphemistically, often referred to as “a ringing in the ears” is in fact a chronic affliction I wouldn’t wish on Maureen herself. Barbra Streisand, who also suffers from tinnitus, once summed it up by saying she “can’t hear the silence.” You never do. Ever. And as you age (or as I age, anyway) the volume increases exponentially. What seemed to affect a single inner-ear only gradually takes over both. There has not been a moment of any day in the past three decades when I could, or can, in that eloquent phrase of Streisand’s, hear silence.
The sound of that high-pitched, unvarying static, day and night, for 30 years creates a layer of unexpected tension which, in one already afflicted by chronic anxiety to accompany his major depression, is sometimes nearly unbearable. I brought up Cat once, on Facebook, and both Mike and Chuck remarked that they never, or seldom, think about that experience. They’re exceedingly lucky. I can’t go a single day without being reminded.
Lest this little memoir suggest that this production was a complete loss, I should mention two, very pleasant, outgrowths of the process. The first was getting to know Chuck; he’d known Victor long enough, and his own persona is relaxed enough, that he was able to psychically roll his eyes over our mutual friend’s more outrageous demonstrations. Victor’s aged mother was coping with cancer the entire time I knew her son; sadly, she died while we were in rehearsal. Although Chuck grieved for his loss, as I did, Victor’s slightly melodramatic swoonings led Chuck to remark, after he’d left the room, “It must be tough to be orphaned at 33.”
The second was getting to write, with Chuck, a song for the production. I no longer recall whose idea this was, or why it was deemed necessary, but as a person for whom music is, despite my near illiteracy, an absolute essential and whose passion for lyrics, and lyricists, is nearly boundless, I leapt into this unexpected collaboration with great joy. Particularly since Chuck, who is musical in the very best sense, composed a lovely, lilting melody for my words. We set the lyric together, Chuck suggesting revisions, me re-working phrases, him tweaking the notes. We ended up with something of which I was almost inordinately proud. I also had the great pleasure of performing the vocal on tape, to Chuck’s accompaniment, for the first act opening.
I tried, in the chorus-less lyric, to capture Jimmy’s loneliness, his budding relationship to Vito and the unexpected meeting of two disparate lives, and some quality of Jimmy’s own, questing mind. (And, although I likely didn’t recognize the fact then, my own.)
How are you feeling?
How is your life?
Is it appealing,
Or reeling with trouble and strife?
Are you acting out your fantasies,
Or waiting all night by the ‘phone?
Are you planning to join the party,
Or pretend you can party alone?
Are you charting out new horizons,
Or sailing without direction?
Are you looking for someone to love,
Or afraid to make a connection?
If you have more questions than answers,
Someone new can make you believe
No matter what time of year it is,
It can be New Year’s Eve…
Although I’m still pleased by the structure, sans chorus or refrain, the lines of each verse until the very last ending in a question-mark, I’m now bothered by a couple of things in that lyric. I loathe the use of “party” as a verb, for one thing. (“Pretend you’re a party alone” would be better.) The “phone” and “alone” rhyme is trite. And “trouble and strife” is a ready-made cliché, too overused to be of value. Perhaps “reeling and troubled with strife” might take the curse off it? Still… while the shade of Johnny Mercer is hardly wailing with envy, the rest of the lyric seems all right to me. And anyway, if you start revising the work of your 23-year old self and don’t know where to stop, you never will.
The music, however, far outshone those words; it’s plangent and quietly bittersweet, and it’s played on my mental jukebox with fair frequency for nearly 30 years. (Chuck, who plays with the band Bellflower, tells me that, “occasionally they let me sing a lead and sneak in one of my songs,” of which “New Year’s Eve” is one. I asked only that he give me a chance to revise the lyric before he does so again. It’ll never be a classic set of verses, but I do have a few ideas to at least make it a bit less cringe-worthy.)
I did not see Victor for quite some time, after Cat. When we ran into each other one night after a play, he made a point of apologizing to me for his behavior. Likely I did as well, for my own. But the friendship was long-dead by then. Whenever I have expressed to another person a concern that some course of action (doing a play, living together) would risk ending a relationship, I’ve usually been proven right — to my cost, and with absolutely no sense of satisfaction that the outcome was precisely as I suggested was possible. In the case of Cat, my inability to remain firm in the face of my own apprehensions, cost me a hell of a lot more than a friend.
Pass the silver ear-trumpet, Eliot.
I passed the foregoing to Chuck, who kindly corrected a couple of my errors, and shared his observations. I think, at the risk of coming off a touch self-serving, adding his insightful and beautifully expressed words is instructive. If nothing else, they prove that his heart is kinder than mine.
Chuck writes: Wow. These memories are so vivid for you, Scott, whereas I had forgotten (or repressed) many of them years ago. There was so much else to let go of where Victor was concerned that I have come to think of the two productions I did with him as only the most public of it. Victor was on a journey of his very own that had little to do with reality, and more to do with his perceptions of himself and the world. Being theatrical was all Victor had; it was his entire identity. He was never able to hold a job, and it was thanks only to his many repeated inheritances from an assortment of wealthy relatives that he lived so very well.
Victor had no monetary limitations, so he never did have to acknowledge the real world. The theater was his every dream, but it rejected him cruelly. Despite degrees in theater and directing from some of the finest universities on the planet, he proved to have no talent for any of it. It was a great sorrow to him. I saw him perform several times, and struggled to say kind words after. It was sad to watch a man’s only dream crash and burn.
I stayed in touch with Victor for many years, although our relationship suffered often from Victor’s excesses. I remember a poorly thought out trip to New York, where I burned through my money for the week in the first day trying to keep up with Victor’s frenzied spending at bars and expensive restaurants. I remember a very awkward dinner party at his house where drugs played a role in a disastrous evening. I remember many times running into Victor at area bars and clubs, and tiring of hearing the same stories shouted in my ear time after time. “I just returned from New York where I saw the most FABULOUS play.”
[Personal Note the First: I can attest to the absolute veracity of that statement. It’s Victor to the very “t” in the middle of his name.]
Still, although Victor lived with his father in the same house until his father’s death a few years ago and contributed nothing of value to my life or anyone else’s, you just had to love the guy. It was almost as if his faults were his most endearing characteristic. The stories I could tell – the ’67 Firebird driven drunkenly through the JC Penney’s all the way from sporting goods to women’s wear, the many drunken scenes at area gay bars, and a bunch of loud lunch dates at upscale restaurants all over town (although never the same one twice).
After Victor’s father died Victor was placed in a nursing home where as far as I know he lives today. He cannot move, nor is he connected to the here and now in any way. He has been bedridden with some unknown malady for about ten years now, his infinite money going to keep him alive in a hospital bed with tubes and apparatus. I haven’t been to visit him there in a couple of years, for which I feel somewhat guilty. It is hard not to love a friend who so clearly loved me […]
One redeeming characteristic Victor always had was that he at least meant well. Small consolation for the actual harm he frequently caused.
The production you speak of was the last time I attempted acting. I only dabbled with it for a year or two, and two productions with Victor were enough to convince me to leave it alone. Yes, the production we shared was by every definition a disaster. Even still, I remember it fondly as one of my greatest adventures.
The song we wrote together is the first I ever wrote in collaboration, recorded, and performed in public. I thought it was a good song, and yes I still dust it off and play it once in a while.
The best thing to come from this awful production however is that I came to know Scott Ross. For that reason alone it was worth doing.
[Personal Note the Second: I hope I conveyed, above, my mutual feelings anent Chuck. I certainly meant to.]
I don’t know why I retain such vivid memories of things and places and people and events, when usually I can’t recall without prompting what I did yesterday afternoon. Of course, memory itself is suspect, as I now gather that what we think we remember is often our memory of remembering… which makes rather a hash of almost every memoir ever written, or even any memory we have. (Or think we have?) Am I remembering what actually happened, or did it not happen at all, or did it happen entirely differently
than I remember? When others say they have no memory of events we’ve shared, I now start questioning myself: Did private emotions heighten the sense of things for me in a way that alters reality itself in the recall? Or did I just retain a sharper mental image of what happened, for reasons having to do perhaps more with my emotional states, and my own obsessions?
Is, as the King of Siam would say, a puzzlement.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
Post-Post Script, 2019
Two items: 1) What was, I have since realized, “questionable” in American Grotesque was not Garrison’s investigation, but Kirkwood’s reporting of it. The book was commissioned by Clay Shaw, and its author duly (and, I believe, either duplicitously or naïvely) joined the universal chorus of voices at that time attempting either to derail Garrison, or to destroy him. American Grotesque is thus far worse than a bad book: It is an evil one.
2) Victor died in March of this year. Chuck called to inform me, and with Chuck’s wife we went to the (sparsely-attended) memorial service. Very few of Victor’s friends were there, as he had alienated almost everyone in his life long before his curious illness. Aside from my casual loathing of the orating minister, who pretty obviously knew nothing about Victor beyond what his conservative relatives told him, my overwhelming emotion during the service was a nearly complete lack of feeling. Victor was dead to me long before his body followed.