by Carmen Ruggero
God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents. — William Shakespeare
By the time the door opened, Laura’s skinny posterior had conformed to the shape of the folding chair she sat on. Seventy-five heads turned to the squeak of its hinges. They could see the golden block letters on the glass upper portion of the door: GNITSAC. They had all been waiting for hours.
A tall, blonde, gangly woman, face tanned to a crisp, stepped out of the casting office, dragging her heels into the stuffy waiting room. The men in the room checked the crease on their pant legs, pulled down on their jackets, and checked the lapels. The women patted their hair to make sure it was in place, and looked at each other for the reassurance that their lips were still intact.
The tall blonde woman gazed around the room. A scrape of chairs was heard. She opened her mouth slightly, raised her brows, and took in a slow breath as she peered over their heads. One hundred and fifty eyes were fixed on her. Anxiety had colored faces ash as each hoped to hear their name called.
A shrill, tired soprano sound finally escaped the blonde woman’s glossy lips.
“Laura? Laura Marcelini...?’’
Laura peeled herself off the folding chair, and walked at a quick pace toward the woman.
“Laura Martinelli,” she corrected with a tentative smile.
“Did you bring your picture and resume?”
The woman’s demeanor made Laura feel as comfortable as her dentist would while pointing a drill at her mouth. With an over-the-shoulder swing of her left arm, the woman motioned for Laura to follow her, showing her into a very small, very stuffy office.
The tall blonde woman dragged yet another folding chair in Laura’s direction. She placed it in the middle of the room, directly across from the desk, and indicated with a tilt of her head for Laura to sit down.
“No thanks. I’ll stand,” Laura told her. She didn’t think her itchy posterior could withstand another hard surface.
The woman flipped a piece of gum around in her mouth, and with an icy stare, pointed to the chair. Laura didn’t seem to have a choice. She reluctantly bent her knees, and lowered her rear towards the unyielding target. Without saying another word, the blonde woman dragged her feet into a back office.
The room was overwhelmingly small. Pictures of non-recognizable actors and actresses hung tilted on the wood paneled walls. A disproportionately large, dark veneer desk occupied most of the space, a small faded couch had been crammed into a corner, and the two-tone shag smelled like a dirty ashtray. Laura decided to open a window.
“Don’t touch the window!” The blonde woman’s off-key G-flat tone commanded as she re-entered the room, followed by a thin man dressed in faded jeans, a Beatles t-shirt and moccasins. “The AC is on!”
“Sorry,” Laura said, “I couldn’t tell.”
With a flick of her wrist, the woman made the introductions. “Mr. Allen, Miss Marcelini.”
“Martinelli,” Laura corrected.
Her tone suddenly chilled, not necessarily by the AC. “That’s what I said. Marcelini.”
The blonde woman walked across the room, flopping down on the faded couch. She leaned back, crossed her legs, and automatically began bouncing her foot to an imaginary beat. Her mouth puckered as she squinted, looking as if she was paying attention. But she was really wondering to which side of her mouth she should flip the gum, Laura thought.
Mr. Allen sat at his desk. “So, tell me about yourself, Miss Marcelini,” he asked, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Martinelli,” Laura said.
He peered at Laura over her resume, his glasses sliding half way down his nose. “Laura, may I call you Laura?”
“So, tell me about yourself, Laura Marcelini.”
“Well...” Laura began, giving up the notion of being called by the right name.
“Well is a deep subject! Ha! Ha!”
Mr. Allen’s laugh was grotesque. Shallow sense of humor, Laura thought. “As you can see,” she stammered, “I have worked in a number of productions... ahmm... ahmm...”
Of course he knew that. He’d just read her resume. That was a dumb answer. He wanted to hear her talk and she had just bounced the ball back into his corner. Now she had to figure out a quick recovery.
That was exactly the kind of audition she abhorred. It was like walking a tight rope blindfolded with hot coals on the ground. Give her something to read, or a joke to tell. An idea of what they were looking for would have helped. She felt herself grasping at straws. What could she tell him about herself? Well sir, I’ve had an interesting morning at the unemployment office. Got my check, no problem. It was good enough to pay my gas bill, and had plenty left over for a couple of hot-dogs...
The room was hot, despite the AC. The interview was neither friendly nor comfortable. Laura began to perspire. She was no longer stuck to the chair; she was beginning to slide off it. What if she gave all the wrong answers? What if she wasn’t the person he wanted her to be? She hated having to second-guess. Mr. Allen looked at her again over the rim of his glasses, lit another cigarette, and took a big drag. Laura coughed.
“We’re casting a comedy by Robert Caselton,” Mr. Allen finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “Brilliant new writer from New York,” he said exhaling in her direction. “I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“But of course!” Laura rushed an answer.
His expression left no doubt; the insincerity of her answer had registered. Mr. Allen looked at her. He inhaled deeply through his nose as his lips drew a tight line across his face. He leaned forward, stretching over his oversized dark veneer desk, gazing up and down her body, freezing a stare on her legs. Laura pulled down on her mini-skirt, and crossed her perfectly shaped lower extremities.
“We’re looking for new faces,” he said, resting his head on his hand.
They came to a stare stand-off. They both knew he was full of crap.
A rat under a microscope would not have felt as closely scrutinized as Laura did at that moment. She wanted to leave. But too many people wanted to get into this production. In business, she knew, one does not turn down opportunities. She had been unemployed for a long time.
Mr. Allen proceeded as if nothing had happened. “It’s a very fast-paced show, very New York, very New York,” he continued, rounding his expression with a heavy cliché intonation while flipping his wrist like an eggbeater with pink prongs. “We need people with good comedic timing.”
He gazed at her legs again. He made her nervous.
“Oh... I’m very funny,” Laura interrupted, and then hesitated. “I know... I can be... funny... that is...” She wished her agent had sent her to perform brain surgery instead. What if he didn’t want her to be funny? What if he saw her as the straight man?
She rushed a contradiction. “I can also be very unfunny, sir.”
Laura could feel the blonde woman’s stare on the back of her neck. Her shiftless presence made matters worse. Laura turned her head around as if pulled by an invisible rope. The blonde woman hadn’t moved from her sitting position on the faded couch, except to tuck one leg under her rear. Her slouchy comfort made Laura uneasy, as if the woman knew something she didn’t. Like maybe the lousy interview would go on for an hour, or two. The blonde woman was still squinting. The piece of gum she had been chewing on for the last half-hour flipped inside her mouth like a yo-yo in captivity. What a character, Laura thought. A modern day Liza Doolittle.
Mr. Allen’s voice faded away as her mind wandered. Laura could play this part of modern Liza. Oh, she wasn’t as tall or blonde as the woman in question, nor as gangly. Singing would also present a little complication. But theater, the cathedral of emotions, was a place to master illusions as well. Actors ‘play’ height. They ‘play’ grace, wisdom, and stature. A song is not sung; it is ‘sold’ to an audience naïve enough to think they hear otherwise. Illusion is the stuff that theater is made of. Laura knew the part of Liza was not out of reach.
ACT I — AS THE CURTAIN RISES, LIZA AND MR ALLEN ARE DCS — CONVERSATION IN PROGRESS.
Liza: What you bring me here fur, Mr Awen?
Mr. Allen: (lights up his pipe) Mr. Allen. (Inhales pipe; blows smoke in her direction) My name is Mr. Allen.
Liza: Is wat I says. Awen.
Mr. Allen: What do you do, Liza. May I call you Liza?
Liza: My name is Lisa.
Mr. Allen: Your name is Liza.
Mr. Allen: Suit yourself. For the time being. Tell me about yourself. (clears his throat) Lisa.
Liza: Wat you want to know?
Mr. Allen: Where do you come from? What does a person like you do?
Liza: (mocking) Wat do ya mean a person like me? I sell newspapers. Is proper!
Mr. Allen: (looks her up and down) Do you read them?
Liza: Then I be selling them all used up!
Mr. Allen: (swallows audibly) Why don’t we discuss it further... right after you’ve had a bath.
Liza: Wat the hell fur! I took one a week come Friday!
Mr. Allen: You’ll take another one tonight. And... (clears his throat loudly) Lisa...
Mr. Allen: Lose the gum.
Who wouldn’t sink her teeth into the portrayal of such a character! Laura looked back at the blonde woman on the faded couch again. She had now tucked both legs underneath her, twirling her bleached hair around her index finger. She was like a blank piece of paper waiting for an author.
Laura could almost taste the chance to perform Liza’s brilliant transformation. She could see herself descending a long, long flight of stairs dressed in a long, long, silk, virginal white gown.
THIRD ACT — SEVERAL MONTHS LATER
Liza (reaches bottom step. Pauses. Keeps one hand on rail): Good evening, Mr. Allen.
Mr. Allen: Liza, you are a dream come true. You are the person I saw from the beginning. Speak to me, Liza, I want to hear your voice.
Liza ( pauses, shiny lips relaxed): Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Mr. Allen: Excellent! Now tell me Liza. What did Peter Piper Pick?
Liza: A peck of pickled peppers, Peter Piper picked.
Mr. Allen: And, if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers...?
Liza: Where is the peck of pickled peppers that Peter Piper picked?
Mr. Allen: Oh Liza, please tell me again.
Liza: Peter Piper picked a peck ...
Mr. Allen: Faster...
Liza: Peter Piper picked a...
Mr. Allen: Faster, Liza, faster!
Mr. Allen: Don’t stop, Liza, please, don’t stop!
Liza: Peterpiperpickedapeckofpickledpeppers apeckofpickledpepperspeterpiperpicked ifpeterpiperpickedapeckofpickledpeppers whereisthepeckofpickledpeppersthatpeterpiperpicked?
Mr. Allen (claps): Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! You’ve graduated, my little newspaper vendor! You are everything I’ve said you could be. (pauses) You’re free to go now.
Liza: Go? You said... go? Newspaper vendor? What was the transformation for?
Mr. Allen: A challenge, of course.
Liza: What do I do now? How can I go back to my humble newspaper stand looking like royalty?
Mr. Allen: This was an experiment, Liza. I thought you understood. I never said I’d keep you. Now be a good sport. I’ll call you, we’ll do lunch...
Liza (cries uncontrollably): Oh, please, Mr. Allen, what will I ever doooooo...
Mr. Allen: I’ll call you, Liza.
“Laura.” Mr. Allen’s voice came back into focus.
Laura blinked and focused on him. “Yes, sir?”
Mr. Allen forced a smile. “I’ll call you.”
“We’ll let you know if we want you to actually audition. This was only a ‘getting acquainted’ type of meeting. We just wanted to get to know you.”
“Did I give you any right answers?”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll decipher the whole thing. You know what they say: ‘The only wrong answer is the one not given’.”
“I thought the only wrong question was the one not asked?”
“Yeah, whatever. You know casting depends on so many factors.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, as if wrapping up the conversation. ”Chemistry... you know...”
Chemistry, my foot, she thought. ‘I’ll call you’ was synonymous with goodbye, good riddance, get lost! Almost an hour of endless scrutiny, answering stupid questions that had nothing to do with acting, her talent, or her ability, all just a challenge to see if she would fit his mold.
Laura was sweating profusely by then. Her make-up began to daub. She felt small and unimportant. Painfully aware of how Liza must have felt. But Liza was only a character in her mind. That was real. She took a deep breath and tried to gather what was left of her dignity in order to make a proper exit.
Slowly, she tried uncrossing her legs without giving Mr. Allen any more challenges. Her eyes were on him. She didn’t see the snag in the rug. When she tried to stand up, she tripped over her own toes and fell flat on the two-tone shag.
Mr. Allen leaned forward again. She pulled down on her mini-skirt.
”Thank you for your time, sir,” Laura whispered in a firm tone from her prone position on the smelly floor.
The blonde woman’s shrill G-flat laughter filled the small room.
Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero