The Play’s the Thing

Any parent knows that watching offspring leave the nest unleashes a jumble of emotions: pride, relief, disbelief, grief, envy, nostalgia, apprehension. Sometimes abject terror. You give them a hug, or a slap on the back, and remind them to keep in touch, eat properly, use condoms, call if they need anything.

You try not to sound maudlin as you say how proud you are. You refuse to admit any fear about late-night calls from the hospital or the cop-shop, but offer a silent prayer that the world will treat your baby kindly. I was reminded of all that one night a few months back, when a complete stranger phoned to announce he’d been asked to direct the first production of my play, Bernie & Nick.

My outside voice said, “Hey, that’s great. I hope you have fun with it.” Meanwhile, my inside voice was screaming, “Who are you, and why do you want to hurt my baby?” The conversation lasted just long enough for him to ask how to pronounce Lagavulin, and to sound me out about three small changes he wanted to make in the script.

Naturally, as any playwright would, I considered all three suggestions utterly ridiculous. Not wanting to sound too precious or inflexible, however, I agreed to one, offered a compromise on the second, and adamantly rejected the third (which would have rendered the entire plot meaningless).

Allow me to note that I’ve peddled words for a living for the past 50 years, but this was the first time a play of mine was produced without me being either onstage or in the director’s chair. I harboured visions of a grand collaboration, where all concerned would set aside ego in service of the perfect transition from page to stage.

As Hamlet observed more than 400 years ago, the play is the thing. Is it not? I envisioned a darkened rehearsal hall, where I might occasionally slip in unnoticed to observe the sorcerer and his apprentices working their theatrical magic. With the director’s permission, of course.

I might adopt a Tennessee Williams-like slouch in the back row, nursing a bourbon and branch water, scowling or chuckling quietly while making discreet notes about tweaks that would make the script more playable for the poor, beleaguered actors. Secretly, I longed for the kind of clout wielded by another great American playwright, Edward Albee. He alone could direct the first production of any of his plays, and no subsequent director was permitted to change a syllable of the final script.

But that’s not quite how it went down. By opening night, I still had no idea who would be playing Bernie. Or Nick. Afterward, when I met the director for the first time, he explained that neither actor had ever had a speaking role before. My outside voice croaked out, “Well, that was a courageous casting decision for a comedy.” My inside voice screamed, “What the hell could you possibly have been thinking?”

But, hey — There are certain conventions observed in theatre lobbies everywhere. Speaking frankly is not one.

So now, when someone asks my opinion of that production, I smile politely and say, “I’m so proud of my baby. She has remarkable cheekbones, don’t you think?” 

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