THE RETURN OF BOEHM
I recently just finished acting in the run of Philip Boehm’s THE RETURN OF THE BEDBUG, from Upstream Theater Company. I was certainly glad I accepted Philip’s offer to be in the show; it was a rigorous but exciting process, being part of the development of his new adaptation of the classic Russian play. We enjoyed a good run, with appreciative if sometimes bewildered response. The play, like much that comes from Upstream, was very different, and it can be very satisfying trying to break new ground in theatre, or any endeavor.
This was the second time Philip Boehm offered me a role, and I wish I had taken him up on his first offer. Because I chose to do something else, I had to endure one of those classic opening-act-on-the-Titanic gigs.
It was during the short but sensational days of the Orthwein Theatre Company, when we were doing a scintillating barrage of plays – classics, premieres of new works in the Black Box, even an Off-Ramp style Midnight series.
The Company offered Philip the opportunity to direct, and he wanted to direct THE SLEEP OF REASON by Antonio Buero Vallejo. And he wanted – no, he was insistent – that I play the central character of the painter, Goya; in the play, a failing 76-year old man, under political house arrest, and somewhat obsessed by his housekeeper/mistress, Leocadia, a woman half his age.
It was to be a Black Box production, and at the more tender age I was then, I was very wary of being able to pull off the character of that old a man in that small space. But the real complication of the situation was another opportunity I had. A year or so prior to that, I had performed a very successful run of Eric Bogosian’s DRINKING IN AMERICA at Zone 8 Nightclub (now part of Straub’s across Maryland from the Chase.) It had been produced by Dangerous Visions, a short-lived professional theatre company run by Bob Hermann, a local, liberal lawyer who liked avant-garde theatre.
Someone – (I won’t mention names but it was a son of a former local politician; the politician contributed a lot to our city, his sons have contributed several aborted business ventures) - a gentleman, to be precise, was turning Zone 8 into The Fabulous Chase Club – a dinner/dancing/entertainment site. It was to be gourmet dinner on the balcony, overlooking the stage, then my show at 8 in the main room, followed by the afore-mentioned gentleman and his big band (he fancied himself a Sinatra-style crooner). He had imported fixtures and booths from classic spaces at the Chase Hotel, and really wanted me to repeat my show at his new place, offering a six-week run.
At my urging, he hired Milt Zoth to direct again. He also delivered some newpaper advertising for the club and our event, and promised big paydays.
The Club opened with a free preview on a Thursday (Holy Thursday, to be exact); his band played, and the food and drink flowed freely to his invited guests. The place was packed, and things looked good.
I opened on Good Friday evening. The crowds, now having to pay, were down. Dinner was still being served, and here I came at 8 o’clock spewing Bogosian’s witty and pointed but often vulgar diatribes against society. There was an uneasy mixture of diner rumblings from the balcony, as the show progressed.
After I wound down, he hit the stage with his band. There was still a fairly sparse crowd (and he uttered from the stage, “Good Friday. Guess everybody got religious on us.”)
After his set, he informed me that my show was closing; dinner would run late every night, and while he could start his music, someone told him this ranting and raving from a pissed-off performance artist was not good for digestion.
After the advertising, PR and word-of-mouth, I wouldn’t let him cancel me, because of lack of planning. I led him to a basement room where I demonstrated I could set up a 40-seat house, and do the show down there, away from his dinner crowed.
We went ahead with it, and went ahead for two weekends of growing business.
At that time, two things happened – the health department shut his restaurant down, and he shut his band and musical performances down – no one was coming to see him, and he couldn’t pay the band or backup singers.
The next two weekends I continued down the basement, while a new band played upstairs – some latin gangster salsa group that drew its own somewhat scary following.
But after two weekends, they weren’t being paid, so for my final two weekends, they were gone and I was moved back up to the big room, playing on the big stage. While after my show, the place became a disco again. The Fabulous Chase Club closed for good soon after that.
It was an epic grind, getting through that run; every night tracking down someone who’d admit to managing, securing promised cash for my stage manager. (Milt Zoth and I are still owed upfront guarantees.) But it has turned out to be a grand theatre story to tell.
And “The moral of this story, the moral of this song,” as Bob Dylan says, “is simply that one should never be where one does not belong.” I was pretty full of myself, and thought the revival of Bogosian could be sensational at this cool new club. I really didn’t have my eyes open.
I should have gone with Philip’s idea then, no matter how daunting. He decided not to go ahead with THE SLEEP OF REASON, and turned to a very successful production of WINGS. Jennifer Loui, who was to play Leocadia in the Goya play, did the lead in WINGS.
So along with the Bedbug, I was glad to get a second chance with Boehm.