by Barbara Alfaro
I live in a quiet community complete with parks, ponds and chubby geese, but once I was a young actress in New York, the shining city of miracles, silliness and off-off Broadway plays. I attended countless “cattle calls” and listened timidly as an agent told me I needed to be “more bubbly.”
I was living on the West Side of Manhattan in a brownstone called the Rehearsal Club. The Katherine Hepburn movie “Stage Door” supposedly took place in this women’s residence for young women studying for or making their living in the performing arts. My room was a “converted” linen closet, the same size and décor as the rooms at the Y – a bed, a desk, a chair. All of the residents were in their twenties except for the gray-haired proprietress who acted as a sort of den mother, dispensing advice and valium with equal cheer.
In addition to office “temp” jobs during the day, I had a part-time job hatchecking at a steakhouse a few blocks away from the Rehearsal Club. The seasoned hatcheck girl who trained me advised me to always wear knee-high boots so that I could put part of the tip money I made into the boots. Everyone does it, she assured me, just don’t get caught. She showed me the wooden hangers in the hatcheck booth to be used for VIP’s coats and fur coats. The hooks were for everyone else. There was some concern on my part about recognizing VIPs. This was long before the current celebrity mania, a time when the only real superstars were movie stars, sports heroes, and the Pope. Film directors frequented the steakhouse, but who knew what directors looked like.
The best tippers were those who’d imbibed way too much and men from the garment industry who perhaps had other connections. Trudging back to the Rehearsal Club, after my shifts at the steakhouse, I must have looked as if I were walking in deep, invisible snow because each of my boots had about five pounds of quarters and half dollars inside them and a few crumbled fivers for luck.
The evenings I wasn’t a hatchick, I was attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At the Academy I learned to refer to myself as a “student of the art of acting” and to my body as my “instrument.”
My instrument auditioned for a character that the playwright described as “voluptuous and extroverted.” I weighed ninety-eight pounds and was so shy my thoughts trembled.
“I am casting you against type,” the director told me, adding, “The character you play represents man’s inhumanity to man.”
I accepted the part of “The Girl.” None of the characters in the play had a name. We – “The Girl,” “The Hero,” “The Young Woman,” “The Mother,” “Old Man I,” “Old Man II,” and intriguingly, “Woman’s Voice Under the Blanket” were, we were told, all symbols. Acting a symbol is about as easy as singing a Picasso.
After weeks of rehearsal, it became depressingly clear that no one in the cast had the slightest idea of what the play was about. There was some discussion about whether it was a comedy. This was the one thing I was sure it wasn’t. Comedy may be born in pain (recall the chap on the banana peel) but it rarely retires there. The director said something about “symbolic juxtaposition.” Finally, one of the symbols clanged. “What the hell is this play about?” demanded Old Man II. The director smiled and said the play’s “meaning, its poetry, its symbolism cannot be explained. It cannot be verbalized.” I knew then that all was lost. I was appearing in a play that could not be verbalized. What was it? A ballet without dance?
My part consisted of walking onstage, giving a brief speech, and sitting silently onstage for the remainder of the play. The only other acting I had done was “the lead” in a children’s theatre production of Sleeping Beauty. In that production I walked onstage, pricked my finger, and played possum. There seemed a tendency on the part of directors to place me onstage and just leave me there.
The play began with “The Hero” lying in bed, studying his hands. He gave a monolog on sexuality, women, and war. “The Young Woman,” an actress who quite possibly had the best figure and the worst diction in New York, entered his bedroom. She gave a monolog on sexuality, men, and war. During her speech a man and woman appeared at opposite sides of the stage and walked slowly toward each other, scattering small paper valentines as they walked. They embraced and walked offstage. “The Mother” ran onstage, screamed, and hit “The Hero.” After a long exchange between “The Hero” and “The Mother,” “Old Man I” entered off-stage right and pretended to die.
A funeral scene occurred. Six actor-mourners, wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, walked onstage. A short exchange between “The Young Woman” and “The Mother” followed, while offstage a voice shouted in German. I was willing to buy all of this, conceding that something does not have to be understood by me to have validity. But what I found perfectly mystifying was why the six mourners, closing and tucking their umbrellas, suddenly also fell dead. Seven bodies strewn on the stage may have had a dramatic effect on the audience. It certainly had an effect on the members of the cast who, when not worried about forgetting lines, were worried about tripping over bodies.
At this point in the play, for reasons known only to the playwright – and even here I have my doubts – an actor crawled onstage, paused center stage, barked twice, and said “Make mine cognac.” He mimed downing a drink with his right paw and crawled offstage. I did not have a copy of the entire script, just the two pages that contained my scene, so I never knew if the two barks were written by the playwright or added by the actor. I was afraid to ask. I cannot explain, verbalize, or dance out the effect this moment had on me. It indelibly marked my psyche. During rehearsals and performances, I had to bite my lower lip and pinch my arm to keep from laughing. If the play had a long run (thankfully, it did not) it is possible that I would today speak with a permanent lisp and never be able to wave my left arm. The only thing more terrible and mysterious than this moment was that immediately following it “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” entered offstage right. I stepped over several “dead” bodies, walked downstage and asked the air, “Is this the Kitty Kat Café?” I then sat at a small table, extremely downstage right, ordered a cream puff and a cup of coffee, and recited a monolog about soldiers and the Black Forest.
The play was staged “in the round” so the actors and audience were on the same level of the floor. I was so close to the audience I could discern colognes. Had the house lights been up and the play been a comedy, I could have examined bridgework.
I had been directed to be “puppetlike,” a sort of meanie muppet. On opening night, completely, I confess, out of puppet, I happened to cross my leg. Between the action and its completion, I kicked a member of the audience in the shin – hard. He was a big man and able to bear pain soundlessly. I don’t know who was more startled. Bathed in embarrassment, as if in full spotlight, our eyes locked and for one mad moment I thought we were going to say hello. I carefully tucked my leg back “onstage” and considered apologizing but I was afraid this would lead to an introduction or worse – chitchat. He looked warm and conversational. [“The leg’s fine. How long have you been acting?”] Breaking illusion seemed sacrilege enough, conversing during that break, unthinkable. He smiled and rubbed his leg. My fears of comradeship confirmed, I looked away. The incident was closed, except for his date’s rather insensitive query, “Did she hurt you, Eddie?” For Eddie and for me it had been a very real moment, possibly the only real moment in the play. I was understandably somewhat apprehensive for the remainder of the play, a soliloquy by “Woman’s Voice Under the Blanket” and a scene between “The Hero” and “Old Man II.” I couldn’t shake a feeling of acute intimacy with Eddie.
I believe in karma and know that in the silent scheme of all things there was a reason for my appearing in this play. But it, like the meaning of the play, even now, all these years later, has yet to be revealed to me. In the meantime, Eddie, if you are reading this, and we should ever meet for an after-theater drink, make mine cognac.
© Barbara Alfaro All rights reserved.
“Make Mine Cognac” appeared in Mirror Talk: a Memoir (2010)