Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In Love With Her Genius

Three girls and three women (over 21, you see) have broken my heart, and two of those heartbreaks weren’t romantic. One of the girls was my daughter, who stopped speaking to me in 2002, and one of the women Ms. Wendy Lucas, whose obscurity confirms that we don’t live in a fair world. In a fair world, Wendy Lucas would, at the very least, be making specials for HBO. In an even fairer one, she’d be Sandra Bullock or Kate Hudson or Kathy Griffin.

My last year in Los Angeles, I read the Playboy interview with Robin Williams in which he confided that making a roomful of people laugh was better than sex. By the standards of the day, I’d grown scandalously long in the tooth for rock and roll, and resolved that my future may have lain in making roomfuls of people laugh. I recruited two fellow members of the Dialects for Actors extension class I was taking, because linguistics fascinate me, at UCLA, wrote a bunch of sketches, and found that I really enjoyed that kind of performing and that kind of writing. It was like music in that everybody had a specific part to play, and we all had to listen to one another. It was unlike music in that audiences seemed friendlier to those trying to make them laugh than to those trying to wow them with their sexual charisma.

My first marriage didn’t survive the diaspora to northern California. I moved down to San Francisco, felt that old familiar isolated, alienated feeling that’s been my most faithful companion, and, as much to try to make a couple of friends as anything else, put together another trio. I briefly tried standup (in a conceptual, Andy Kaufman-esque way, going on stage as The Rev. Billy Pulpit), but found I didn’t enjoy it as much. I resolved to write a revue that, in addition to the sketches I was writing in profusion now, incorporated several of the wry songs I’d written over the years, such as (Everywhere You Look) It’s Yom Kippur. Envisioning a five-person company this time, with three women singing and dancing when they weren’t acting, I recruited the guy who’d played Roosevelt to my Churchill in a San Francisco City College staged reading of something whose title I’ve forgotten, and then went looking for some gals.

Auditions consisted of cold (that is, unprepared) readings of several of my sketches. My character-driven sketches, mostly about the ways in which people hurt and embarrass one another, are written to be played perfectly straight; I’ve always told my actors that they should leave it to the audience to recognize the situations as absurd, but to have no inkling themselves. Wendy Lucas got this immediately. Her characters were vivid and credible, and from about the third line she read in the first sketch, I had to bite my lip to keep from blurting, “Never leave me!”

I came to understand that she’d auditioned to be in an apparently highly rated sketch comedy show that’s an Arizona State University institution and quickly become its artistic director or something. When she agreed to be in my little company, which I decided on a whim to call The Spandex Amazons, it was as though the dreary seaside neighborhood in which I lived with the San Francisco Zoo’s koala keeper was suddenly drenched in buttery sunshine.

We did a show at a little South-of-Market hole-in-the-wall called the Bindlestiff Theater. Because it was July, I called it The Spandex Amazons’ Xmas Spectacular, and had Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts roasting on open fires when people came in. Being on stage with Wendy Lucas made me a 50 percent better actor instantly in the same way that most of the 2004 Cleveland Cavaliers would probably have told you that being on the same court with LeBron James made them better basketball players. Being around greatness makes you want to be great too.

She wasn’t my type physically, but she was a young local substance abuser’s, and they became romantically entangled. I hoped that her asking for and my providing advice about how to deal with him made our bond stronger, but it didn’t seem to. When I would drive her and another member of the company home, I would always drop the third party off first so that we had a moment together. Off stage, though, we were mostly awkward around each other. I think she may have worried I was in love with her, rather than with her genius, and that it was untoward for me to be so, given the wide gap between our ages.

The cast of The Xmas Spectacular went for a post-show drink together, and I floated the idea of our attempting to gain a local reputation that would eventually inspire the Comedy Channel and others to offer us a show. The high-strung Flo, who loathed me, wasn’t having it, and was replaced by a gorgeous young BBW type, Kathryn, with a glorious strong singing voice and some significant mental health issues. We did a couple of shows at a prestigious SOMA theatre whose name may come to me before I post this, and may not — Free Airfare to Wherever We Fly With Every Ticket Purchased and Free Microwave Oven With Every Ticket Purchased Subject to Availability. (We were a theater company, not an airline, and had no microwave ovens available. Let the buyer beware!) We performed as part of a city-wide theatre festival at a bar on Geary Street for an audience of two lesbians who stormed out indignantly halfway through the song Gay Friends, which they’d thought mocked gays, rather than benighted breeders’ conceptions of gays. Kathryn claimed to be friendly with a local impresario, with whom she said she could get us an audition. We performed one night for an audience composed entirely of four British tourists, and it was the best audience I’ve ever faced; they positively screamed with laughter in all the right places.

I had Major Surgery. Dr. Curtis Kiest replaced my excruciatingly arthritic right shoulder with a lovely new titanium one. None of the cast saw fit to drop by the hospital, or even to phone. I got sort of an unloved feeling. Wendy Lucas's indifference hurt most. I had hoped her genius might send a bouquet.

I thought we might get rich by providing entertainment for big corporate wingdings, and hired (by the hour), a videographer to shoot a music video of Gay Friends and a couple of sketches. Kathryn turned up airily 90 minutes late, and didn’t fail to miss that I wanted to strangle her. The morning of the audition for her impresario friend, she phoned, with Wendy on the other line somehow, to say that she’d changed her mind about calling her favor in, and was quitting the group, taking Wendy with her. I felt as though someone had dropped a small building on me.

I regrouped. In consecutive years, I formed two entirely different versions of what I now called the San Francisco Hysterical Society. At their auditions, a few young women had me hoping I’d found someone as good as Wendy Lucas. Fat chance. That I’d done no such thing always became clear within a couple of rehearsals.

I moved to London and there, in consecutive years, assembled The Ministry of Humour, The Clear & Present Rangers, and another version of The Clear & Present Rangers. There are some awfully good actresses in London, and some of them wound up in my companies. There wasn’t another Wendy Lucas.

She must be around 38 now. A Google search reveals only that she’s teaching (Spanish?) at a posh private elementary school in Oakland. We could have been the new Nichols & May, Wendy Lucas and I. We could have moved mountains. It ain’t a fair world.

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

1 comment:

  1. What a valentine. Very comforting reading to a fellow mourner. Appreciate your putting the "sketch" into context.