Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 26: The Goodman Stands Firm

Chapter 26
The Goodman Stands Firm


In March, spring air moves across the Keys. The sun travels a higher arc, exciting the island’s colors and warming the sea below. Breezes stir the treetop birds and bear the sweet scent of frangipani softly down the lanes. Bougainvillea cloak porch railings in piñata hues. When we arrived at Tennessee’s house, the allamanda vine that twined along the picket fence had opened clusters of deep lemon trumpets.
            As if cramming for finals, Tennessee holed up in his studio working on revisions to A House Not Meant to Stand. The production in Chicago was coming up fast, but there had been so little mention of the play or its impending production, I surmised he had little to do to improve the previous year’s version. That, or, after the previous Goodman productions of earlier versions, he’d simply grown tired of it. But now it was front and center.
He had finished Skye’s portrait, and Skye had moved into the guesthouse with Gary. Dino, a twenty-year-old waiter at the restaurant Claire, had caught Tennessee’s eye, and was now ensconced in the front bedroom. Tennessee had convinced him to move in so that he could paint his portrait, and so far, seemed to be keeping his promise not to touch the skittish boy. With Tennessee’s focus on Dino, Skye's inclinations took a turn for the practical. He enrolled in a marketing class at Florida Keys Community College.
            For once, the household was at near equilibrium, and the competition for Tennessee's favor was in abeyance. I had time to relax and enjoy the spring weather, spending many afternoons on the beach with friends. Pale tourists poured down from the North and hijacked much of the town. Cars crept along Duval Street as more and more people jammed into Old Town. Business owners walked with a bounce; waiters paid back-rent. Key West was again in season.
Nightly, tourists overflowed the sidewalks on Duval Street, stopping at bars to refill their plastic cups. Sunburnt frat boys, arguing and shoving each other, stumbled out of Sloppy Joe’s, only to pile back in again, too drunk to remember why they had picked a fight. Across the street, in between customers, the short, half-naked boys at Tutti Frutti’s wiped ice cream drips from the counter and tidied their displays of poppers. All business packing cones and raking in the dough while serving a hunk of a customer, they would watch him leave, glance at each other, and then duck the counter and run to the street. Passers-by watched as the boys stopped at the curb on bended knee—a prayer for a backward glance.
Opportunity was everywhere—and more was always welcomed. When the prevailing winds ushered landing planes across Old Town, drunken straights joined the gay chorus toasting the roar of each descending jet, “Fresh meat!”
When I arrived that night, The Monster was packed. A river of men flowed through the club, bunching in the tight spots and eddying in the corners. On the giant screen, Busby Berkeley’s girls danced in the water, up a ziggurat, and along the wings of a flying biplane as Blondie sang, “Ohhhhhhh, your hair is beautiful. Oh . . . tonight . . .” People jostled and groped, wedging their way toward the dance floor. Wafts of cologne and sweat mixed with the pungence of cigarette smoke and poppers. The thick air drifted across the room and escaped through the wide-open doors.
My legs beat in place as I stood against the wall sipping a vodka tonic and smoking. The pounding bass reverberated through my body, amplifying my mood. Anything was possible. I could feel it in the air—I had not felt this alive in weeks. I got another drink.
Three weeks before, I had met Matthew on this very spot. While returning from the bar with a drink, I stepped on a foot and stopped to look down. A chestnut cowlick. The sun’s heat radiating from freckled shoulders. My eyes followed the contour of his chest as it slipped beneath the aqua of his muscle-T. His eyes measured me inch-by-inch upward from my giant foot until, drawing his head back, he found my gaze. My arm had already slipped around his waist.
”Hello . . .”
We spent sun-filled days on the beach together. Nights, we walked beneath an infinity of stars—every moment I could steal from Tennessee. On our third day, I awarded him the role I had been trying to cast for years, and we imagined our future together. Four days later when he had to fly home, we pledged to write daily. I mailed my first letter before his flight reached Miami. However, after a week, I had heard nothing from him. My mood began to waver. After the second letter-less week, I plunged into despair. I had been seduced by my own fantasy. During the third week, I heaved my memory of Matthew onto the bonfire of assholes and turned away. Life was all around me. The Monster was full of it. And now I needed a dose—no matter how much drink it would take to forget. I did not care to think about Matthew.
As I returned to the bar, I strained, scanning the faces of the crowd at the edge of the dance floor. Electronic drums—Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”—shot from massive speakers and ricocheted around the darkened room. Synched light flashed from strobes suspended from the ceiling. In the staccato bursts, a sea of bodies danced, freeze-framed in throbbing white.
As the song ended, my energy began to collapse. Exhaustion swept over me; memories dogged me. My body was turning to lead. I tossed the rest of my drink and weaved my way to the bike rack. Shoving off from the curb, I swore at the pavement and pulled my head up. The mile and a half before me stretched beyond all possibility. 


Rehearsals for A House Not Meant to Stand were scheduled to begin at the Goodman Theatre on March 23. We made a quick trip in early March to meet with Gregory Mosher, the theater’s Artistic Director, to go over pre-production details. André Ernotte, the Belgian director Gregory had hired for the production, had not yet arrived in Chicago. During the week before we left, Gary had taken to tossing off famous lines from Tennessee’s plays, mocking the voice of a Belgian trying to go unnoticed in Pascagoula, where A House Not Meant to Stand takes place.
Tennessee laughed along with him, but finally, after a particularly good skewering, he snapped. “You should record these for our entertainment. I’m sure André would benefit from a copy.” Gary did not wait an hour before redoubling his attack.
On the plane to Chicago, Tennessee turned to me. “How does a man named André know how people speak in Mississippi? This is not some academic discipline, you know.”
He closed his book.
“Sound, cadence . . . tone,” he said. “An accent has to emanate—from within. It has to originate in the bones.” He looked out the window. “An accent without soul will sabotage a play—butcher the poetry. Destroy it for a cheap laugh.” 


The next day, Tennessee delivered his play revisions, and he and Gregory discussed production and publicity details. When Gregory showed Tennessee the renderings, he was pleased with the costume and set designs.
Gregory took us to lunch at Hamburger Hamlet. Seated among palms, brass, and Boston ferns, we ate burgers that threatened our sleeves and soddened our fries. After two glasses of Chardonnay, Tennessee relaxed.
“Do you know . . .” he began, “has André directed a play set in the South before? I mean, what sense can he have of the South—he’s Belgian.”
Gregory leaned forward and looked Tennessee in the eye. “Was Kazan a southerner? Quintero?” He sat back. “Tennessee, some of your greatest directors were foreign born. The same cast is returning from last year. They’re familiar with the material, with the accent. This is the third year—our big year with your play. We’ll hire a dialogue coach if we have to.”
 House had its inception as a work-in-progress presented in the Goodman Studio. Originally a one-act play titled Some Problems for the Moose Lodge, it was presented in 1980 with two other short plays in a program called Tennessee Laughs. Gary Tucker directed, as he did the following year when the play was expanded to full-length and renamed A House Not Meant to Stand. Now, in its third incarnation, it was being brought to the main stage as a completed work. Most of the previous year’s cast was returning, but there was one exception. Peg Murray would take the female lead, Bella. Because of her previous work in his plays, Tennessee was delighted.
He was not, however, pleased with our lodgings. Hoping to get things off on the right foot and distance this production from past shenanigans when Gary, Skye, and Tennessee had shared more relaxed accommodations and the parties had been unending, Gregory booked a deluxe suite for us at the Mayfair Regent Hotel. What most people would consider welcome luxury, Tennessee found suffocating. In the lobby, uniformed employees tried to assist people who had paused only to pick a piece of lint or to search their pockets for a note. Footfalls fell silent in the thick-carpeted hallways as guests passed each other to the swish of nylons and trousers. We had barely entered our four-room suite when nine phones rang in unison. After taking the call, Tennessee instructed me unplug all but two of them.
After lunch, we returned to the Goodman. Tennessee signed off on the costume and set designs, and insisted Gregory find us more modest accommodations in the future.
“My constitution can’t take it,” he said. “I need something more suited to the artistic temperament.”


After leaving the Goodman, Tennessee wanted to swim at the Chicago Athletic Association’s pool. His brother, Dakin, had made arrangements for us to use the club as his guests. We braved the wind and, crunching patches of hard-frozen slush, walked the seven blocks to the club. If George Pullman and Marshall Field went to heaven when they died, they went here. We passed through the lobby—palms, club chairs, and walnut wainscoting—a perfectly preserved men’s retreat from the era of robber barons. We found the pool, and then in defiance of the weather outside, stripped and joined naked executives swimming laps in the marble pool.
That evening, we went to the Loading Zone for a drink. Tennessee wandered off to case the place, and I ran into a college friend I had not seen since graduation. Jeff Auld had moved to Chicago and was working as a clerk in a law firm. He had brought his friend Doug to the bar with him. Doug’s blushed cheeks and fine dark hair distracted me, and while Jeff and I gossiped about college friends, I kept one eye on Doug as he came and went. By the time Tennessee joined us, we had all had a couple of drinks.
Jeff and I continued talking. Tennessee pulled Doug aside and entertained him with stories from his repertoire.
“. . . and then Tallulah . . . Oh! She ruined my play. Ha!”
However, before long, Jeff, beset by worries about having to work in the morning, wanted to leave. Finally, Doug acknowledged his hints, and began pulling away from Tennessee. Tennessee caught his arm.
“Come with us,” he said. “I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”
Jeff and I looked at each other, astonished.
Doug just stood there a moment, and then he smiled.
“OK.”
Doug stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. Tennessee threw an arm around his shoulders, and after saying goodnight to Jeff, the three of us took a cab to the hotel.
When we arrived, I opened a bottle of Frascati and served it at the desk in Tennessee’s bedroom. Then, with only a nod, I took my glass and slipped out, closing the door behind me. Exhausted, I downed my glass of wine and then tossed my clothes on the wing chair in my room. I picked the chocolates off the pillows, placed them on the nightstand, and slipped into bed. I had already left a wakeup call. I turned out the light.
Ten minutes later, Doug burst naked into my room. He dove under the covers, and grabbed hold of me with arms and legs as I lay on my back. Reluctantly, I struggled against his grasp, and, not knowing what else to do, turned my back to him.
“Turn around,” he said, tugging at my shoulder.
I heard Tennessee in the hallway. He stumbled into the room confused, wearing only a tattered pair of briefs. “You’re in the wrong bed,” he said, as if this were a common mistake. He extended a hand toward Doug. “Come along. This way.”
Doug latched onto me tighter. I groaned as I wrenched my body from the warmth of his nakedness. I was not going to get into a turf battle with Tennessee over a trick. I turned to face Doug.
“It’s Tennessee . . . Williams. He’s calling you,” I said.
Part of me wanted to protect my friend’s friend. Mostly, I wanted Doug alone. However, Doug had had a lot to drink, and whether he realized what he was getting into or not, he had made his own decision. I reached past him and pulled back the covers. Like a puppy betrayed, he slowly backed out of the bed on all fours.
“This way,” Tennessee said. He led Doug back to his bedroom.
When I heard Tennessee’s door close, I got up and closed my own, deciding, after a brief debate, not to lock it. I was wide-awake. I examined the chocolates on the table, unwrapped one, and popped it into my mouth. I climbed back into bed. I was thankful for the hum of the heating unit. It would cover what I did not need to hear—but allow me to hear enough. I popped the other chocolate, and then lay there hoping to fall asleep, my emotions full of life and anarchy.
Five minutes later, I again had company. Doug was back in my bed; Tennessee stood in the doorway.
“What’s going on?” he asked with exasperation. He walked to the side of the bed and stood there staring. He seemed almost sober. “You keep jumping into Scott’s bed. Didn’t you come home with me?”
I felt Tennessee’s pain and disappointment, and was embarrassed to be witnessing it. I was so glad I had not encouraged Doug. Doug was the only man I had ever seen come home with Tennessee who was not a streetwise hustler—and it had come to this.
I turned and shot Doug a look that could not be mistaken. He rose with a start and followed Tennessee out again, but only minutes later, Tennessee was back in my room—alone.
“He’s leaving! He’s putting his fucking clothes on and leaving!” Retreating through the doorway, he groused, “Fucking cold city, Chicago,” and disappeared back into his room.
Doug stood in the hallway, tucking in his shirt. He was already wearing his coat, but his shoelaces were untied. Tennessee came out of his room, slipped a check into Doug's coat pocket, and then returned to his bedroom and closed the door. I pulled on my pants and went into the hallway.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We were all too drunk.”
Doug sighed.
“Do you have cab fare?”
He nodded.
“Look,” I said, as I tentatively pointed my finger at him and then myself, “. . . maybe some other time—when things aren’t crazy.”
I let him out the door, and then entered Tennessee’s bedroom. He was sitting on the side of his bed. He looked up at me, rubbed his forehead, and sighed.
“I think he should have paid us,” he said. 


Not long after that preliminary trip, we returned to Chicago for the start of rehearsals. We flew straight up the wide, green thumb of Florida, and then across the state of Georgia. As we approached Atlanta, I watched as the green became as delicate as a confectioner’s dusting and then dissolve on the rise of the Georgia mountains. We crossed the Appalachians and the rolling horse-country, and then a brown and gray geometry flattened the Midwest. There was not a trace of white.
“I think we’ll be safe,” I said.
Tennessee looked up from his book. “Oh?” He looked across me and surveyed the quilted landscape as he spoke. “I wouldn’t place bets on Chicago weather.” He looked back to his book. “You know,” he said as he closed the book on his finger to show me its cover, “Joan Didion is our greatest writer . . . living writer.” He was reading The White Album. “I don’t think she gets enough exposure.” He opened the book again, appraised the portion still to be read, and then closed it and got up to go to the lavatory. “You can read it when I’m finished.”
I nodded. I had nearly finished In the Winter of Cities, a collection of Tennessee’s poems, but I still did not read Tennessee's work in front of him—especially poetry, which intimidated me in general. I had been leafing through magazines on the plane. Reading Didion on the way home would be a treat.
We landed an hour later, and took a taxi to the Delaware Towers Hotel. Tennessee made some calls while I shopped for supplies: Frascati, instant coffee, and Cremora. We now had a kitchen, so I picked up four cans of Progresso minestrone as well.
The next morning, we arrived in the green room just in time for the first rehearsal. Tennessee, with a self-conscious friendliness, introduced himself to André, and then when the cast began the read-through, sat me between the two of them.
He cackled and fidgeted. He occasionally talked over cast members, commenting tentatively on the play’s action or characters as the read-through progressed. Most of the cast, having worked with him before, knew what to expect. A few lost concentration when he interrupted, but as the reading progressed, Tennessee turned his attention more to making notes, and everyone relaxed. André remained quiet, observing the reading without making many comments.
During a break when everyone got up to stretch their legs, Tennessee grabbed my arm. “Peg Murray,” he whispered, “is as subtle as the Staten Island Ferry coming in to dock!” He grimaced and jotted a note on his legal pad. “We’ll use ‘Staten’ for her code name.”
When the reading finished, Tennessee announced that he was pleased. Smiling, he left some of his notes with André; the rest he kept for himself. However, after we left the theater, he told me he was horrified by the bellicose shouting of the male lead, and by Peg’s insensitivity. Back at the hotel, he organized and typed up notes, and then worked on some dialogue changes. Tearing sheet after sheet from his typewriter, he nearly filled the trashcan before he was satisfied.
By the next morning, he decided he would give Peg a chance. Unlike the rest of the cast, this was her first time working with the play. However, after the second rehearsal Tennessee was again upset.
That evening, we went to dinner with Bruce Smith, a friend of Tennessee’s whom I had met during our earlier trip. Bruce owned a public relations firm in Chicago. He had strong opinions about Tennessee, his work, and the people Tennessee associated with. He did not believe André or the Goodman were right for Tennessee’s play. During dinner, Tennessee’s fears about the production ran wild. “André is deliberately sabotaging my play!” he said. “Peg has no sensitivity. No sensitivity at all.”
After dinner, Tennessee announced he would spend the evening with Tony Narducci.
“He saved me, “Tennessee said. “Couple months ago. Caught me when I slipped on the steps at The Monster.”
I tried to remember the incident.
“I must have been traveling with Gary that night,” he said.
“Tony displayed such a sweet nature—he’s Sicilian.”
Bruce and I waited as Tennessee pulled a letter from his jacket pocket, studied it briefly, and then returned it.
“I invited him back for a swim—he recited poetry in the pool . . . We’ve been corresponding ever since.”
I felt uneasy. Tennessee had not mentioned a word about Tony to me.
Bruce offered to show me around town, and with Tennessee’s encouragement, I went with him. We headed to the bars on Halstead Street. We sat, saying little, as we drank two beers at Little Jim’s. After that, we had a round at The Bushes. Bruce, too, seemed distracted. He tapped the bar with his fingers as he downed his beer. I hurried to keep up. We moved on to a club a block down the street, and there we sat at a table. Bruce went to the bar and returned with two Michelobs.
“Who’s this woman plays Bella?” he said.
“Peg Murray.”
“Yeah, I know.” He narrowed his eyes to a squint. “Tennessee hates her. The Goodman’s idea I bet.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He hasn’t given her a chance.”
He leaned forward. “This play has got to work for him.” He took a long pull on his beer. “Who could play that part—make it spark?”
I groaned. I was bloated. Thinking was a struggle. “She needs a chance,” I said.
“He said she played it like a barge.”
“Ferry.”
Bruce snorted, spraying beer across the table. He wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin. “I’d like to see that,” he said.
“Staten Island Ferry . . .” I tried to keep a serious face. “He needs to be a patient—really. She’s had only two days.”
“But think,” he said. “Who would bring it to life? This play—it could change everything.”
“Mary Nell Santacroce.”
“Never heard of her.”
Gary’s idea,” I said.
He grimaced and then daggered me with a look. “The right person could . . .” He stopped for a moment. “This is the right play. We need to find the right actress.” He leaned back in his chair, his fingers threatening the label of his bottle. “You know Maureen Stapleton, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, “kind of.”
“Imagine her as Bella. She would make this play.”
He was right; Maureen would be perfect. “I do have her number,” I said, and immediately regretted it.
“We can do this. We owe it to him.” He thought a moment, and then said, “Tomorrow’s his birthday. This can be our present.” He was dead serious.
I nearly sobered. “They’re already in rehearsal,” I said. “It’s too late.”
“Look at me,” he said. “She’s a professional—she could step in with just five days—hell, three! Call her first thing in the morning.”
I stared at him.
“You know this is right,” he said. “Think of what it’ll do for Tennessee—all the years he’s had to fight for his plays—the new ones. We can’t let him down. It’s perfect. I don’t know Maureen—never met her. You will do this. You have to!”
I knew he was right about Maureen in the role—and I knew her appearance would attract the right attention.
I nodded.
He shook my hand.
 “When Maureen Stapleton walks out on that stage . . .” He closed his eyes and extended his arm in a slow sweep above the table. He opened his eyes, stared at me, and said, “Believe me, they’ll all thank us.”
We sat there as the idea sank in, and then I remembered something. “She won’t fly.”
“Fly? She can get her ass on a bus—or a train. Can’t take that long. Where is she, New York?”
“Probably.”
“No problem. Just picture her on that stage.”
I was, and I liked the picture, but the beer had taken its toll. I managed to stand and made my way to the men’s room. When I returned, we left the bar and hailed a cab. When I got out at the Delaware Towers, Bruce slid over, rolled down the window, and grabbed my arm.
“You’re in charge, boss,” he said. “Good night.”
Tennessee was asleep. I saw he had typed up notes and laid them out for me to take André in the morning. I fell into bed.
When the alarm went off a few hours later, Tennessee was still in bed. I got up and, after a long hot shower, dressed. He still had not stirred. The pressure for success had been taking its toll.
The bare corner of a piece of paper peeked out from under his door. I walked over to see if it was a note.

 Dear Scott,
Please wake me in time to prepare for the A.M. flight to Key West.
Right now I have no way of knowing if they are in a legal position to proceed with the production on its present course which I think is disastrous to it, but can’t permanently injure the play itself. I am obviously not well enough to take a chance on a court case if the Eastmans and I.C.M. and the unsigned contract still enable them to take me to court. I have not time nor strength left for anything of that sort, as you well know.
 Love, Tom
 At best, I can only live a month or two more. Dr. Brandon can attest. 

Was he serious about leaving, or had he just been spooked in the night? I wished Tony had stayed with him. Had he booked a flight?
I heard noise in his room. He opened his door and stood in the doorway, his robe and hair wildly askew.
“We’re returning to Key West today,” he said. “Take my notes to André. Tell him we’re leaving.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll book a flight for the afternoon.”
With that, he turned and shut his door.
I hesitated, but this was no time to argue—or to wish him a happy birthday. And no telling what the plan would be by the time I returned.
I left to deliver the notes. I found Gregory and André in Gregory’s office, and handed the notes to André.
“We’re . . .” I took a deep breath. “We’re leaving for Key West—this afternoon.” They stared at me.
“He’s upset. Says his health is failing.” I did not pretend to believe Tennessee’s health had changed. No flight arrangements had been made. Tennessee must have sent me hoping they would beg him to stay.
“OK,” Gregory said, “we’ll cancel the birthday dinner. No problem. The cast bought him a key ring at Tiffany’s—sterling. Had it engraved. We’ll give it to him later.”
I was hung over. His quick reaction made my head spin. Trying to replace Peg with Maureen Stapleton could not be possible, and Peg needed a chance. I felt foolish for letting Bruce bully me. However, the actor playing Cornelius was in real trouble. I had to do something—even in my condition.
“Look, you need a new Cornelius,” I said.
“Is that what Tennessee told you to tell us?” André asked. “Is that why he’s leaving?”
“No, but isn’t it obvious?” I surprised myself. “He storms and bellows. He isn’t improving.” I looked at Gregory, and then blurted, “Tennessee’s going nuts. Says he’s going to close the production if the leads aren’t changed.”
 “Oh no he isn’t,” Gregory shot back. “And neither are we. He’d never forgive us if this production closed. He needs it more than we do. Tennessee’s job is to work on rewrites. It’s André’s job to direct—and Tennessee needs to stop interfering. It’ll be better for everyone if he leaves town.”
My head cleared instantly. “You’re right,” I said. Tennessee’s reputation was on the line. Why hadn’t I realized this? He needed a critical success; the stakes could not be higher. But for now, he needed to get out of André’s way.

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