Hollander's Deal

by Peter Mark Richman


The snow fell white and silent on the Boston Common, but the wind, howling with fierce determination, piled layers of frozen fluff two feet thick against the frigid trees and buildings. It was the worst snowstorm New England had seen in twenty-five years, and they stayed away from the theater in droves. "All That Glitters Is Not..." opened its pre-Broadway break-in at the Shubert Theatre on January 19, 1949, to a poor advance in ticket sales and decidedly mixed notices: one was an absolute pan.
The fact that neither Paul Muni nor Edward G. Robinson graced the cast (although Robert had tried like hell to get them) didn't help the box-office receipts. And the fact that Daniel Osborne, a Hollywood semi-star of secondary importance, was in the cast helped even less. He was a fine actor, however, and excellent in the role, although on a list of ten prospects he was Robert's ninth choice. Robert had seen him in a lot of old "B" movie melodramas and had never forgotten him.
The part of the junk dealer, who inadvertently gets involved with the underworld, eventually destroying the foundation of his family, called for an actor of earthy and unsophisticated power, and Daniel Osborne had all that. But right up to the first run-throughs in New York he gave everyone the "sweats" with his poor memory and constant flubs. He'd been in films and away from the stage too long and the pressure to sustain a performance 'live" made him nervous and insecure. Robert found out just how insecure one night on the bare stage of the old Majestic Theatre while they were still rehearsing in New York. Daniel Osborne and his young producer were sitting on two folding chairs, a single rehearsal light casting eerie shadows on their tired faces, when the actor confided, "I guess I've been making movies for too many years, son. The old juices have slowed down to a drip. Out there, that's all you need to fool the emulsion on the film: a steady drip, in close-up. And if the drip isn't good enough, you just do another take."
"But, Jesus Christ," he said, pulling on his veined, massive fingers, "it sure isn't good enough on a theatre stage. That's for damn sure. I've forgotten what it's like to sustain a performance... to keep all those words on my fumbling tongue." He shook his head. "It's been too easy, damn it... and I just can't seem to break the picture mold. I'm sorry Robert."
Robert reached out and touched his shoulder gently. "You're doing fine, Danny... just stay with it," he said. "You haven't forgotten anything. It's all there. Everyday you're getting more solid. It's just a matter of time... playing time." The old man smiled another wrinkle in his craggy face as Robert continued: "And if I haven't told you, I want you to know that I think the family scenes are just great... really... great. Have patience, Danny. I have a lot of faith in you."
"Thanks," he said, stretching his six-foot, bulky frame. "I wish I had as much confidence in myself. Son-of-a-gun, I'm just scared, I guess. I'm sixty-two years old, and it's hard to start proving yourself again at my age. Hell, there was a time when this play would be a snap for me. Just learn the lines and get out there and say them... and everything would come up four-leaf-clovers! Now, it's like gettin' my teeth pulled."
The playwright, Kirby Graham, however, couldn't stand to hear even one word of his precious play being altered or forgotten. So when he wasn't hovering in the dark theatre listening for mistakes, or reluctantly rewriting, he proceeded to drink himself glassy-eyed, disappearing for hours. Robert wasn't too disturbed by his absence; in fact, he was rather relieved. It seemed to ease Daniel Osborne's insecurity and relax the whole company.
It wasn't until Robert needed an immediate rewrite for the second act, after the Boston opening, that he became concerned for the whereabouts of his playwright. Kirby hadn't shown up for a production conference in two days and hadn't even volunteered his Boston telephone number to the stage manager. They knew he hadn't registered at a hotel, at least not under his own name, because they had checked all of them by phone, and no one had heard of him. So, feeling the necessity for action, Robert left the rehearsal and went crunching through the snow in search of his playwright.
It was four-thirty in the afternoon when Robert, beet-red from the cold, stood in front of Filene's department store rubbing his gloveless hands together, the snowflakes swirling into his eyes. Looking around, he became aware of a neon sign blaring the virtues of a drinking establishment called "The Box". Instinctively, he knew that of all the joints he'd looked into, that was the one in which he'd find Kirby Graham.
Robert entered "The Box" and was immediately repelled by the overpowering rancidity and heat of the tiny bar. He was about to make a rapid exit when he saw, sitting at a table in the rear, a man kissing another man-who looked a lot like his missing author.
He walked to the back of the room, where Kirby, whose personality fluctuated between total reticence and silent hostility, sat impassively, with his eyes closed, still being kissed on the cheek by a well-dressed young man wearing pancake makeup and a ring in his ear.
"Excuse me, " Robert said, "Kirby..."
The frail young man with the ring in his ear looked up, startled, and said, "What do you want? Who are you?"
"I want to talk to your sleeping friend."
"He's not sleeping... he's resting!" he said.
"Oh, I'm sorry, " Robert answered, "he looks like he's asleep."
"No, he's resting. Resting and dreaming." The young man smiled. "I've been known to make a lot of my friends dream."
"That's wonderful," Robert said, leaning in, "but I have to get him up. It's very important. Kirby... Kirby, ole boy... we need you!"
"Hey! Let him rest, will you!" The pancaked face said. "Don't disturb him! He and I are going someplace together later, and I want him to get his beauty nap now! Let the pussycat rest. He's had a few too many drinks and he's tired."
"Tired, my ass... he's drunk!" Robert said forcefully, losing his patience. "The son-of-a-bitch is drunk!"
"So what if he's drunk? Who the hell are you, his guardian?"
Robert straightened up. His heart was pumping fast now. "Listen, you," he said, "I'm sorry to break up your little affair, but I have to get him out of here."
"You've got a lot of nerve, you bastard!" The young man replied indignantly. "He's not going anywhere! He's mine! Go get your own!"
"What's your name?!" Robert suddenly heard himself shout, reaching into his pocket like a policeman, his expression portending grave consequences.
There was a pause.
"My name? What do you want my name for?" Robert didn't answer, his eyes a slit. Finally, after a suspicious glance around the room, the young man said, "Francis... my name is Francis. Francis Flemington. What's yours? Are you a cop?"
Robert inhaled a deep breath and... leaning in close, quietly said, "Francis, I'm the producer of a Broadway show, and this dreaming pussycat is the author. I need him to do some work for me, and I need it now. If you would like to help me get him into a cab, that's terrific. If not, get the fuck out of my way before I knock your front teeth up your nose!"
In the cab, Robert stared at his unconscious playwright, wondering how he would solve the play's problems under such inebriated conditions. He was thankful, however, for small blessings. At least his playwright had been found.
That night after the performance, Robert stood gazing out of the window of his suite, counting snowflakes melting on the pane. Behind him, the director of "Bah Bah Bahama," Marty Colson, a tough, street kid paced restlessly, while Dolores sat on the sofa, devouring after-dinner mints. And on a chaise in the corner, Kirby Graham, hunched over, sipped another cup of black coffee, his long, skinny hand trembling. He was only thirty-seven years old, but he looked fifty.
"Again it didn't work. I know what I'm talking about," Marty said. "For chrissakes, the audience tells you when it doesn't work! What is there to think about? The fucking scene needs a major adjustment!" The frail playwright made sipping noises and blinked his eyes uncontrollably as he took a deep drag on his Pall Mall.
"Is anybody listening to me?" Marty continued. "I could improvise better dialogue, and I will if I don't get some fucking cooperation! This isn't a novel we're doing, goddamnit... it's a play! The actors have to have sayable words to express. We can't put notes in the program to tell the audience what the characters are thinking. The actors have to say what they're thinking. Let's stop fucking around!" He dropped noisily into to an over-stuffed club chair.
"I think..." Dolores started to say.
"Listen, Dolores," Marty said, "you're a great kid, but I'm not much interested in what you have to say at the moment. I'm directing my comments to the playwright."
"Hold on, Marty," Robert said, "just hold on and don't get carried away. If Dolores has something to say, I want to hear it."
"I have nothing to say." She swallowed another mint.
The director, his adrenalin going, turned to the playwright.
"Kirby, have you been listening to me? Or haven't you come out of your stupor yet? I need a fucking rewrite! Am I going to get it or not?"
Kirby put his coffee cup down and squeezed his lips together, still moving with residual drunkenness. "Mister Colson... that is your name, isn't it?" he asked softly.
"Yeah, that's my name."
"Well, Mr. Colson, I've listened to you for four weeks now. And I've watched you for four weeks now. And I just want you to know that you're not so bloody right in everything you say. In fact, half of what you say is full of rancid beer piss... and just as useless. In case you've forgotten, I'm the author of this play... which means that I wrote the words... all of them. And it also means that I don't have to write another bloody word if I don't want to. Not one bloody word change if I think it's destroying my original efforts. And if you want to check with the Dramatist's Guild as to the veracity of my statements, go right ahead." Then Kirby stood up unsteadily and said, "Do you understand that, Mr. Colson? You unpleasant, off-Broadway piece of shit!"
At that, Marty jumped up from his chair and grabbed the author by his thinning red hair and was about to smash his face when Robert intervened with a flying tackle, spilling them all to the floor.
"Cut it out!" Robert screamed. "Cut it out! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"That creepy sonofabitch!" Marty shouted. "I'll break his goddamned neck!"
"Shut up!" Robert ordered. "I'm producing this fucking play and I'm responsible for what's on that fucking stage! Just do your job, Marty, and leave the rest to me! Leave the fucking rewrites to me! I'll handle this in my own way!" At this point, Robert was lying on top of his director and Kirby was crawling behind the sofa. "Kirby... Kirby! Where the fuck are you?" Robert said, getting up and looking around. "I want to talk to you!"
"He's hiding behind the sofa, the creepy bastard!" Marty said. "He has to puke some more. Use the toilet, you creepy shit-face!"
"Shut up, Marty, goddamnit! " Robert snapped. "Enough of that!"
Dolores, standing on top of the coffee table, pointed silently to where Kirby had dragged himself. Robert grimaced, then tiptoed to the window. There in a lump lay the author, hidden from view except for one shoeless foot. Robert closed his eyes and shook his head, exhaling a sigh. Then he said: "Kirby... Kirby, I want to talk to you in a civil manner. I have some heartfelt things to say and I wish you'd try to be receptive. Kirby, we have a lot of serious work to do before we get to New York. It's our duty. It's our responsibility." He paused. "Are you listening?"
The large lump moved but was silent. Robert got down on his hands and knees and began again, slowly, in priest like tones: "Kirby, you've written a beautiful and wonderful and meaningful play. It's an important play. It says important things about life and love... and God. About God, Kirby, and man's weaknesses. It touches people. That's important, Kirby. You've made it important with your perceptive talent. And that's rare, very rare. Now listen, Kirby. Whatever we have to do is only minor. We're talking about minor adjustments, because your play is such a well-constructed play. Well constructed and well defined, with exceptional acting roles and dynamic scenes. Any actor would give his soul, if he had one, to get a part in this play... this play that you've written with your tender heart.
Robert let it sink in; then he said, almost singing, "I love your play, Kirby I love it! It means more to me than you can ever know. This play is my life, Kirby. Help me. Help me to make it the greatest play that New York has ever seen!"
At that moment Kirby's head appeared, his eyes red and watering.
Robert continued mellifluously, just above a whisper. "Will you help me, Kirby? I need your help. Without your help I can't function. I can't achieve what you've set for us as a goal. The supreme accomplishment. It's almost complete. The perfect play. It just needs your continued attention... your gift of creativity to make it flawless. To make it memorable. You can do it, Kirby. Please don't turn your back on us. We are your servants. We want to serve your marvelous play. Won't you help us?"
And there on the floor Kirby broke down and wept convulsively, whimpering, "I will... I will." That was when Marty ran into the hallway with a pillow pressed against his laughing mouth, while Dolores watched her bed partner in renewed fascination: a master of the noble art of con.

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