Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Greater Pretender

The following scene is from “The Shock of Recognition,” the first of an evening of four one-act plays, “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” by Robert Anderson:

A hungry actor is auditioning for a playwright and a producer in the producer’s office.  Before he even knows what the role calls for, he’s equivocating.
“I… uh… didn’t really expect to be seen by anyone… I’ve got my hair long because I’m up for a part in a Western series… but I can cut that… And the mustache is temporary… for a commercial.”  Told it’s for the leading role, the actor is quick to add, “I can be taller… I don’t have my elevator shoes on . . . Or shorter! I mean… I can pretty well adapt. The hair is dark now, but you may remember… it was blond…. I’m pretty well tanned up because of this Western… but if I stay away from the sunlamp for a couple of days… I… well… look more… intellectual… if that’s what you’re looking for. Also, I have my contact lenses in now, but I do have glasses, if that’s closer to the image. (He whips his glasses out and puts them on. Thrown off balance by the two sets of lenses, he takes them off.) And, of course, I do have other clothes… And my weight’s variable… I mean, if you’re looking for someone thinner.”
When the producer tells him they’re actually looking for someone “a little pathetic and ridiculous,” the actor’s trigger-response is, “That’s me… I mean, put me in the right clothes… a little big for me… and I look like a scarecrow… I can shrink inside my clothes!”  He further assures producer and playwright he can shrink inside his skin “if I think it. If I can think it, I can be it.”  He shows composite photos of himself as doctor, cowboy, soldier, businessman, grocer. “You can’t notice it, probably, but I’m wearing a hairpiece… I look quite different without it. Do you want me to…” He moves to strip off his obvious hair-piece.  The producer barely manages to stop him. 

He continues to profess he can be anything they want him to be.  He’ll work out in a gym and become muscular.  He’ll look younger.  Or older!  Not only can he look ridiculous, he avers he does look ridiculous!  Toadying and turning himself inside out, changing colors and skins, he’s indefatigable.  And a zero.  Bring anyone to mind?
I trust by now I’ve made my point.  But it gets better:

The actor finally stops trying to be everyman-under-the-sun long enough for the playwright to tell him what the part, specifically the opening scene, calls for.  He’d be playing a husband whose wife is lounging in bed while he’s brushing his teeth in an adjacent bathroom, water audibly running from the tap as she’s talking to him.  Turning off the water, he emerges from the bathroom—stark naked—to say, “Honey, you know I can’t hear you when the water’s running.”  
“You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” opened in 1967, long before nudity had raised heads in Broadway theaters or the country’s movie houses.  But this actor, who’ll say and do and agree to anything to get what he wants—a part in a play!— is unfazed. “I can do that,” he says.  Starting to undress to demonstrate how nimbly he can humble himself, he apologizes for the hole in his sock; he didn’t expect to be stripping.

Note he doesn’t mind looking ridiculous.  “Girls have sometimes… uh… laughed or giggled… at first.”  But with eyes accustomed to finding compromise:   “Well, I’ve been turned down for parts because I was too short or too tall… too fat or too thin… too young or too old… But I never did or didn’t get a part because of…”  (Suddenly… unbuttoning his shorts) “What the hell!”
I know of someone who’s been auditioning for one role for six years, preceded by preparing for it practically all of his life.  He can be tall, he can be small—or he’ll be you-name-it, depending on audience demand or the audience at hand.  He’ll morph before your very eyes!  Shamefully dishonest and dishonorably shameless, he’s alternately chameleon or parrot.  He’s against everything until he’s for it and for everything until he’s against it.  If the eager-to- please actor says, “I can do that,” he’ll trump it with “I know what to do!”  Ad nauseam, “I know what to do!”  He’s pro-this and pro-that, extremely whatever and severely the opposite.  “All the world’s a stage?  Yes,” he claims, “I said that… before what’s-his-name did!”  The only thing he stands for and stands by is what sells. 

The actor seeking work merely lacks grace.  The man who would be kingpin has no shame.