The Role She Plays

By Charlie Riccardelli

 

Elia’s wife Barbara is an opportunist, a faux Marilyn likening herself to that blonde bombshell of yesteryear.  ‘Marilyn and I started out the same way,’ she gloats, another cigarette over another cocktail at another party he doesn’t want to host.  ‘Both pinups in pushups,’ she quips, bumping her chest out, kicking up her feet.  She wiggles all her curves in a tight blue dress, eyes batting alongside her beaming smile.  The party guests eat it up, like she has Monroe’s moves or her wit.

Wit.  She stole that goddamn line from Elia, from the night they started sleeping together.  After a rehearsal during their first show at the Washington Square Theatre, she approached him with questions about her role.  Up in that sound booth they went to spitball ideas.  Ever the schemer, Barbara moved the conversation to praise Elia’s direction, for bringing Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams to the stage, speaking of him as some sort of theatre messiah, hyperbole for hyperbole’s sake.  Elia retaliated with those comparisons of Monroe and how he knew her once, an insecure vixen of a movie star wanting to really be an ‘Actress’.  He talked up the weekend he spent screwing that platinum blonde in a posh Manhattan hotel.  “But she was all surface, Marilyn,” Elia told Barbara, hand running up her thigh.  “Marilyn should be lucky to be like you.”   In no time, he had her body against the controls, her ass pressing the levels up, his arms across the knobs, bringing a rainstorm cue to life on the stage.  Barbara’s otherworldly wails projected from the back of the theatre to the stage.  The pipes on that woman.  Christ Almighty.

Elia saw himself as a master manipulator of everyone in his life, so it threw him for a loop when the wiles of Barbara left him fevered on her pheromones.  She made him her trophy, a self-proclaimed muse to the director.  Barbara, who mistook those early lustful desires for love and passion.  In the theatre she maintained a professional air, never seeking favoritism, but outside during meals and drink, cramming one more body into a booth built for two, she trained Elia to heel at her command.  She curtailed annoying conversationalists and schmoozed investors he couldn’t take time for.  Barbara, who managed the calls and the arrangements, who asked for nothing in return but him in her bed at the end of the day.

Barbara motions Elia to join her inside this black box space she’s created at the center of their living room, to show off her seasoned husband for the people, the man who makes her free with the aid of his considerable assets and clout.  For a moment it appears that she might be willing to relinquish her one-woman show into a two person production, but she doesn’t seem content to do that, and really, what more can Elia add to this conversation to the domestic farce that she’s created?

“Look at this man,” Barbara says to the guests, hooking her husband by the arm, nearly knocking the scotch out of his hand.  She squeezes in close to Elia, planting a long kiss on his lips.  She can still do that right, her tongue protruding into his mouth.  The sensation of her explorative tongue gets the better of him and he goes along with her show, rough hands rubbing along the side of her body.  He feels the need for the crowd of chic hangers-on who crowd his gawdily impersonal apartment for the evening, lounging across his couches, spilling ash and cocktails, pontificating over pretentious bullshit.

“Hey Barb, how does it feel to be married to a legend?” one of the guests calls out from behind the others surrounding the couple.

Barbara brushes back the bangs falling down in front of her face, waving off the guest’s question as if she doesn’t mean to answer such an inquiry, but Elia knows she has her words rehearsed.  She’s stated to him in private her emphatic opinions of herself and the role she plays in his life.

“You know…boys and girls…normally I wouldn’t be too boisterous about mine and Gadge’s relationship.  Mother always told me when you had a good thing going, no need to gloat.  But you see…Mother’s not here and this liquor’s been doing some wild things to my head this evening.”

Whistles abound, cheering loud enough to wake up their infant son Leo down the hallway.

“Let me tell you something…and who asked that…who…Oh, Michael…Michael, thank you so much for coming, doll.  Michael…I’ve had my time on the stage and I’ve had great reviews and success for what I’ve done.  I’ve had it, but it all seems so fleeting in comparison to being a muse…an inspiration to a greater artist like my husband right here.  To be his rock through every Broadway production and movie…well…Gadge sure is the kinda man I wouldn’t mind keeping around for a while.”  Barbara, smiles, petting the back of her husband’s thinning grey hair with her hand, planting a soft kiss on his cheek.  Such nice words to be said, but Elia thinks he should be the one to compliment her prowess if anyone can say it at all.

Why do they call you Gadge, anyway?” the costume designer of Barbara’s latest show asks.  Elia goes to answer, but he’s interrupted again, holding his wife’s empty glass as she passes it on to him.

“Something about his Group Theatre days all those years ago.  A man you can count at any given point in time, something like that.  How does it go?”

The party looks to Elia.  Barbara wants nothing more than for him to confirm that she knows his history from a good twenty-five years before she met him.  “Short for Gadget,” he confirms, feigning ignorance, “or something like that.”

Barbara leans into her husband, pinching him at the waist.  “Try to show a little enthusiasm, please.  You’re acting like a fogey, like some parent who’s checking in on his teenager’s party in the basement.”

Elia tenses up, passing back her drink. He’s ready to explode in front of her, with each  new sly dig he can’t handle.  “Gonna go mingle,” Elia decides, anything to distance himself from the hostility of his wife.

He is unsure of what Barbara is supposed to have inspired in him all these years besides taking a leave of his senses, maybe to leave Molly.  His wife’s a part of his history with women, they both know that.  He screwed ingénues all along Broadway for years.  In dressing rooms and toilets, against the sharp beams of the lighting grids and the comfort of stage couches.  Elia took them in hotels in Boston while the rest of the cast fretted over the preview reviews in all night dives, finding solace in a heavy drink and a quick toke of grass.  Their director put his mind at ease with random women in stopped elevators, somewhere between floors six and seven.

Every woman came to Elia just as Barbara had, in the guise of a concerned artist, grappling with the motivations of their characters.  They asked for after-hour discussions, ‘too alert’, they’d claim, nearly on the brink of a breakthrough.  These actresses never sought help understanding the script, but advice embodying the physicality of a character, letting loose their emotions.  “Show me again,” they said, extending an arm for Elia to operate.  “Show me how I should handle myself.”  He planted himself behind them, one arm entwined with theirs, this other adjusting the waist for proper blocking.  “Keep the head angled just so.  The people in the balcony will gasp from the acting or the beauty or both.  Take hold of your body while my body takes hold of you.”  A late rehearsal leads to an early morning excuse to Molly for why he couldn’t get the kids off to school on time.

Molly, Elia’s first love, whom he abandoned for Barbara so readily, escaping to the bed of a dye-job blonde in those final years that should have belonged to her.  Where has she gone to?  Wherever Protestants go when sudden illness takes them, perhaps.

“The pictures are all gone,” says a playwright friend approaching Elia, a man staring into his glass of scotch like it holds all the answers.  “I remember the old way the apartment was. The walls were covered in memories.  Now all I see is Pop Art.  Kinda miss the homey quality.”

Elia shrugged with no reasonable response.  “I don’t know what happened to them,” he lied.  “Anyway, Barbara says pictures are for people who can’t remember.”

“Wait until she gathers up a few more photos from times she was around with you.  They’ll be mounted on the wall.  Once the specter of the first Mrs. of your life is behind and she has more of you than Molly ever did, that will change.  The new wives always feel in competition with the old ones even when they’ve been in possession of you for years.”

Elia grows frustrated at the implications, but he puts up a weak defense of Barbara, knowing there’s truth to those words.  His friend long ago left his high school sweetheart for an actress of his own, then again to a travel photographer.  The playwright’s early joys in boundless bawdiness have given way to drink, endless glasses of lament for what he gave up to follow his dick.

“Ease up on the drinking, huh?” says Elia.  “And maybe stop performing a critical analysis of my life.  You wouldn’t want me to do it for you, my friend.  Bowing at the altars of your Shiksa goddesses like a pagan ritual.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit.  You analyze my life all the time, Elia, so don’t jerk me around with these stories of what I do or don’t.  My plays are my life and you’ve produced them all.”  The playwright pulls the glasses from his face, wiping away flecks of dirt with his handkerchief, dabbing the sweat building up in embarrassment over this argument he doesn’t want to engage in like so many of their tiffs.  “I don’t mean to be this way.  You get to spending enough time fretting about your own problems and sometimes you want to believe others have it  the same just so yours  don’t seem all the worse.”  He stares across the room at Barbara, watching someone light her cigarette without her noticing, too deep in conversation.  “She’s so different from Molly.  I guess I think different is bad sometimes when it really just is.  I don’t mean anything by it, Gadge.”

Elia stared at his wife, so different from Molly.  His first wife’s uniqueness was what drew her to him in the first place.  Growing up in the Bronx, Elia knew no girls like Molly.  Never so refined or fair skinned.  Never with the kind of uptight WASP background, that’s for sure.  She came from a lineage that included lawyers and college presidents and a solicitor general.  Molly’s pedigree ensured that she would never have to fight for a single thing, with the spoils of life being handed down to her as she wanted them, from educations to husbands to homes.  But she was a fighter, Molly, and that’s what Elia loved in her.  She fought her family to go to Yale and indulge in what they referred to as ‘the pageantry of theatre and playwriting’ and she fought him on every choice he ever made in the theatre because she was right and Elia needed to see it.  She carried more class and consideration than those blue-blood New England Republicans who claimed her as one of their own merely because of the circumstances of her birth.

While in school together, Molly defined herself in classes and productions by not being among the garish and obnoxious who vied for the attention of everyone in the department.  As an aspiring author, she wrote and rewrote.  She watched rehearsals and revised again.  Her fault came in the failure to self-promote as the others did, insecurities of selling herself, but no one could deny her intelligence for the theatre, ahead of all others and the up-and-coming trends.  Elia never took the time to notice her, busy chasing the skirts around him, women swayed easily by his charms and slumming it with an ethnic.

Molly was drawn to his imperfection, speaking up to him one day about his acting, sticking around in class after the others left, Elia failing to scrounge up some action with a girl he was chasing.  “You have this very rough, unrefined quality about your acting.  I don’t know how much of it is you or your peacock-like way of presenting your feathers.”

“I don’t follow you, girl.  What are you saying.”

Molly curled an arm over her chair, still seated, Elia against the doorframe.  “You act and I can always see that kid in you, the one who’s posturing for attention, like you’ve found yourself in trouble and you want to get out of it.  I see you in class, trying to get these leading man roles that aren’t you.  You should use your natural talents as a charmer.”

“I don’t want to be defined by some character actor parts, alright?” he protested.  “Those aren’t for me.”

She smiled at Elia’s objections.  “If you bring in that natural quality to your work every time you’re on the stage, they’ll be showcasing you only so the star isn’t upstaged.”

One evening after rehearsals of The Seagull, Elia approached Molly about thoughts she expressed in a class discussion regarding more naturalistic acting in the theatre.  She swept him up in her ideas and inspirations of what theatre could be if only distanced from the formal European traditions.  “American theatre is ripe for a Bolshevik style revolution of its own, to carve out its place in history and develop a style dictated by the people, not tradition handed down to us.  More than reading the lines, we can act with our experiences and emotions shaping our parts, not some blind following of a script, performing like automatons.”

“But the play is the script,” Elia argued.

“No,” she said to him.  “A play can be so much more than that.  A play can be everything that we bring to it.  Our experiences can mold the roles.  Don’t just play a taxi driver, know what a taxi driver does every day, what he struggles with in life.  Anyone can stand up and call themselves whatever they want, but not knowing what shapes those lives and what we can bring to the role to inform those experiences is nothing more than recitation.”

They spoke into the evening about Stanislavski’s system of acting, and the burgeoning Group Theatre reparatory company in New York City, which had begun to build its reputation by never putting one actor in the group above others.  This young woman, who spoke with such conviction and intellect of all things art and politics, won Elia over, that he could not help himself or his passionate feelings towards her.  The conversation flowed liked the cheap beer he and Molly drank on the floor of his furniture-less apartment, wrapped in his bed’s blankets to keep them warm, as if either noticed the cold.  With each new topic Elia found himself moving in closer to her, until he discovered the two of them in a romantic embrace, making love at the foot of his bed.

All through the night he watched her sleep, fearing that she might wake up and be nothing more than a rabble-rouser Red intent upon creating this radical persona to ruffle the feathers of her family.  She might have broken from her family’s ideas of what a suitable man was, picking up the one she saw as most unacceptable to call her own: A South Bronx Greek immigrant with a bronzed skin and busted, bulbous nose, speaking in the clipped language of the old country and what passed for English in the slums.  To a woman looking to frighten her family, his presence at the Connecticut dinner table would create hysteria.  Only in the morning, awakening to Molly’s kiss above his eye did Elia see the sincerity of her words and her feelings for him.

“And in The Group Theatre, you won’t have to play just another ethnic,” she said, carrying on the conversation of the previous night before another word was said.  “You are only limited by the roadblocks you set for yourself.”

Their marriage was a grand collaboration of talents.  Elia found in Molly his muse, a forward-thinking theatrical wunderkind who always knew better, how to change the theatrical experience into daring new directions.  In her husband she discovered a man recognizing the strengths of her insights, a conduit for so much of the choices she was too nervous to risk taking on her own.

Molly kept Elia from parties in drama school and their first years of marriage in New York.  She preferred late nights of notes and character deconstruction.  She commanded the floor of their living room, coffee table removed to form her makeshift stage.  Molly inhabited the roles of Blanche Dubois, of Maggie the Cat, a Willy Loman to make Brooks Atkinson take notice for his latest column in the arts section.  They discussed and argued, fought and made love and fought again.  She touched his body and told him how to breathe, how Terry Malloy should breathe.  How Terry Malloy and Edie would walk through Hoboken on a bitter winter day, discussing her brother who had been thrown off the roof their apartment building.  How he made love to her that first time, forceful but caring.

Molly knew about the other women Elia juggled and why he kept them from ever entertaining guests on the few occasions she wanted to do so.  Theatre crowds swapped lovers, and too often, leaving him to wonder if Brando’s date could be one of his past mistakes, a costume designer from some long ago summer stock or certain dalliances committed when a trip away from their Manhattan apartment proved too long for his needs.

She booted him out.  Molly took the kids away to her parents’ house in Connecticut for a prolonged trip, the returns always delayed until the couple missed each other, missed that creative spark.  Those times when Molly and Elia had their relationship and wine and literature, discussions until five in the morning, what plays to perform, what movies to direct.  When the discussion of art could transport them back to their days at Yale Drama, crowding each other on the frosty wooden floor of his apartment.  Elia discussed the acting he’d trade in for directing.  Molly mused about the plays never to be written, abandoned for a career as mother and caregiver.  He struggled to help his wife with her plays, but her mind was fragile, never happy with the words written, always fretting over the worse.

When a new project surfaced, Elia would be whisked away back to Broadway.  He followed his films to Salinas and New Orleans while Molly stayed behind.  She received clippings along the way, local coverage of her husband riding through Monterey with James Dean or fighting alongside Emiliano Zapata in a fake Mexican village.  Everything she’d see but the photos from filming in Greece or his time in Mississippi.  Never with Barbara, who followed him and took care of her lover on the road, when he worked too hard and didn’t eat his meals or keep to certain responsibilities as a producer.  Barbara wanted good coverage for the local press.  She incorrectly identified herself as the director’s wife.  She didn’t lie when she displayed their son Leo.  Soon enough Barbara would have the title for her own, Leo could officially be cast alongside Elia’s other boys and their other life could be accepted by the public in the way so many indiscretions get justified.

The apartment Elia and  Molly once shared has been altered to accommodate Barbara.  Their artwork and manuscripts have been filed away in a storage unit in lieu of Barbara’s personal decoration.  The photos throughout the home have been distributed to Elia’s eldest children so they, as Barbara says, ‘can remember their mother.’  Baby pictures of Leo hang in the far end of the hallway, a wedding photo of the couple.  Barbara shows guests the only picture in the living room, of herself as a child riding an elephant.  Elia look at the walls and can only chronicle his life starting as a middle-aged father of one.

After the mixer, Barbara asks if her husband discussed Harold Prince’s proposal to do a musical.  Would Elia humor a proposition for another ‘Streetcar’ revival?  “I’m far too young,” she cooes, eyes gazing to a distant Tennessee Williams script she will never perform, “but I think Broadway is due for a new Blanche.”  She clomps across the kitchen in her four inch heels, draping her body across the counter, giving recitations like a Vivien Leigh impersonator.  She strays far from the view of the pictures.

He can’t help hating Barbara even though she didn’t make him leave Molly or kept him cheating all those years.  Elia passes the blame to anyone who isn’t himself, not willing to accept the loss he’s responsible for, the only woman he really loved.  He’ll resent Barbara who did nothing he couldn’t have stopped himself.

Elia collects the stray mouthfuls of wine from the leftover glasses, pouring them out into Leo’s sippy cup he found under the couch.  He drinks down the backwash of two dozen party guests, slumping in his recliner to think.

“Whatdoya say, Gadge?  Do I have the part?”

________________________________________________________________

Charlie Riccardelli teaches at the University of North Texas where he also studies in their PhD program. His stories and articles have appeared in the American Literary Review, Wilde Magazine, Lamplighter, Rivercraft, and Essay Magazine. He is currently writing his first novel.

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