Authors: Ed Gorman
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
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Â© 2012 / Ed Gorman
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For my partner in crime, Bob Randisi
". . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."
y the time we reached the second act the audience was well aware of what was going on. Stephen Wade, the television star who was playing the role of the father in this version of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, was so drunk that he was knocking against furniture and quite often forgetting his lines. Between acts he had been given coffee and a quick walk in the cold, damp May night, but neither had seemed to help much.
I wasn't quite sure how to feel. Because this was the first really serious play I'd ever been in, and because my performance as the drunken elder brother, James Tyrone, Sr., depended so much on what Wade did, I was angry most of the time I was on stage. But then I'd look closely at Wade, at the matinee-idol good looks that had slipped into white hair and booze-loosened flesh, and I'd feel sorry for him. There was a grief in his blue eyes that overwhelmed me sometimes and I sensed a man destroyed and left empty.
Among the people at the Bridges Theater, staff and cast alike, there had been a lot of apprehension about how Wade, who had begun his career thirty years earlier in this same theater, would behave when he got here.
Well, for four weeks, he had done fine. From what anybody could tell, he stayed dry, his performances as impressive as anything we'd ever seen him do. On a couple of occasions he had asked Donna and me out to dinner, and we became friends of sorts. He always made her sad, his melancholy aura pulling her in, but he made her laugh, too. He was a great storyteller, and he'd known everybody important in Hollywood for the past twenty-five years. When the play finished its month-long run, I was going to take him fishing, up to a cabin a police officer friend of mine owned.
Then, he got drunk and came on stage that night and things changed.
A lot of it, I don't remember. I was aware of three things simultaneouslyâhow awkwardly Wade was moving around the stage, how nervous I was that I was going to muff my own lines, and the steady undercurrent of whispers and snickers from the audience whenever Wade made a mistake.
Finally, it ended. The curtain came down and we all left the stage.
Michael Reeves, the director, was waiting in the wings. "Wade, I want to see you a minute." From the tremor in his voice, I could hear that Reeves was barely controlling his anger. He was six feet tall and muscular like a dancer. He might have been handsome if his swarthy face hadn't been so petulant. No matter what we did, he always seemed vaguely displeased. He never laughed except at somebody else's embarrassment.
When Reeves spoke, the whole cast stopped its quick flight to the dressing rooms. Much as Wade had embarrassed us, I sensed a protectiveness among the cast. Reeves was going to be very ugly.
Reeves came over and stood in front of Wade. "You realize you're fired."
Wade, still lost in a boozy haze, looked up and said, "I'm sorry about tonight. There's no excuse."
Reeves looked at the rest of us. "You see how he's going to try to get out of this? He's going to play the pathetic."
Wade, who was five-nine at best, tried to draw himself up with dignity, but he didn't have much luck. His shoulders slumped and his gut drooped. He was fifty-three years old and tapped out. He put out his hand for Michael to shake and said, "I embarrassed you tonight and I'm sorry." His voice quavered. I'd worked with enough alcoholics during my years on the force to know that Wade was very near the end. He probably needed hospitalization.
Reeves didn't take Wade's hand. Instead he slapped him.
Even above the noise the stagehands were making closing the theater down for the night, the slap sounded loud and harsh in the small theater.
"You sonofabitch!" Reeves screamed, letting his rage go. "This is an important play for me and you ruined it. Totally fucking ruined it!"
"Hey, Michael, down out a little, all right?" said Richard Keech, the actor who played Edmund. Keech had a suffering, almost pretty face wrapped in curly auburn hair.
"Yes, please, Michael. Let him go to his dressing room." This was Anne Stewart. Regal, slender, still a beauty at fifty, she played the mother with a quiet ferocity that had impressed us all.
"I don't think it's fair to pick on Michael. He isn't the one who's drunk." Evelyn Ashton, who played the maid, was twenty-four and ridiculously beautiful. Really. Since I'd met her I'd been playing a little gameâtrying to find a bad angle to her face. But there wasn't one. She had the gold silken hair of a storybook princess and gray eyes that were as luminous in their way as precious stones. Aerobics kept her body equally lovely. She had only one failing: she was obviously and painfully in love with Michael Reeves.
Now she started to slide her arm protectively around his waist, but Reeves pushed her away. He was trying hard to get control of himself. "I want you to take your things and get the fuck out of here tonight. Do you understand me?" He was yelling in Wade's face.
All Wade could do was stand there and take it. I glimpsed his eyes and wished I hadn't.
I was about to step inâI didn't like Reeves and maybe I was half using this as an excuse to finally have it out with himâwhen David and Sylvia Ashton appeared.
The Bridges Theater had been so named for one of the wealthiest men in the city, a man who'd made millions in steel when steel was building the country. His name was Hughton Bridges. Sylvia Ashton's mother, Leora, had had the good sense to marry the man. Sylvia, and consequently her husband David, were very wealthy. They spent their days running the theater.
David Ashton was a mild man given to bankerish three-piece suits and a perpetual sad smile. One could see, though, the fading good looks that had once helped him in his own stage career. When he saw what was going on, he said to Reeves, "I wish you wouldn't make things any worse than they already are."
"I've fired him, David, and I expect you to back me up on it."
Ashton looked pained. He hated confrontations and Reeves was pushing him into a bad one. "Why don't you and Stephen and I go to my office and discuss this?"
Reeves, probably rightly, sensed that Ashton was going to try to ameliorate the situation. "Goddamn you, David, why don't you show some balls for once? This has-been embarrassed all of us tonight and he should be fired for it!"
The small sob had the force of a gunshot.
Everybody turned to look at Sylvia Ashton. She was a frail woman of about her husband's age, maybe forty-five, with one of those too-delicate faces that suggests a mask. Her dark eyes had a quality of quiet madness. She seemed to see beneath surfaces, and what she saw there had unhinged her somehow. People around the theater spoke carefully of her stays over the years in various mental hospitals. Obviously, this was exactly the kind of pressure that got to her. In a sad but rather grand way, she said, "I thought we were all like a family here. We should be, you know. We all love acting more than anything else."
Reeves sighed, exasperated.
Anne Stewart, who was a good friend of Sylvia's, touched the smaller woman gently on the shoulder. Tears were shining in Anne's eyes.
But curiously, it was Wade who looked the most overwhelmed by Sylvia's obvious struggle with this moment. His head was down and he was shaking it side to side, like a penitent in a confessional. When he raised his head, his gaze was fully as forlorn as Sylvia's own.
Reeves pushed him then.
None of us expected it, and I doubt that Reeves meant the push to be that hard. Wade fell back into a grand piano. You could hear its impact with his back. A cracking sound, bone against wood. Then he fell to the floor, his arms flailing out comically.
What surprised me was how quickly he got up. What didn't surprise me was how angry he was.
Wade's reaction to Reeves's taunting had been atypical, perhaps because Wade had been ashamed of his drinking. Maybe he felt that he had no choice but to suffer Reeves's anger. But, according to twenty years of press reports, Wade had a furious temper. He'd been taken to court many times for brawling.
Now I could see that temper.
Before I could get to him, he'd arced an impressive right hand into Reeves's face, startling and hurting the taller man, and slamming him into the wall.
Wade stalked in closer, set to throw more punches at Reeves. Wade, his face red, his eyes crazed for the moment, spittle at either side of his mouth, was frightening to watch. Enraged drunks usually are, as any cop will tell you.
I grabbed Wade before he could get his next punch off. He was all curses and craziness. Keech came over and helped me keep him away from Reeves. For his part, Reeves pushed his face into David Ashton's face and said, "You choose, Davidâhim or me." He jabbed a sharp finger into Ashton's chest and then stormed off.
By now Sylvia was weeping openly, and Anne Stewart was holding her carefully, as if she might break.
I said to Wade, "Why don't you let me give you a ride to your hotel?"
But he was still very drunk and very angry. "I don't want shit from you, Dwyer. Not shit."
Everybody looked at me. There wasn't much to say. I was the first one back to the dressing rooms. I got myself ready for the street and left.