I’m in my trailer, waiting to shoot a scene for episode 309 of Better Call Saul. I’m nearing the end of my Albuquerque adventure. My character’s upcoming comeuppance has long been revealed to me and I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve also made a lot of friends on this show, and seen a lot of talented people work that combo of skill and inspiration I could, and often did, watch all day long. I loved Chuck McGill when no one else did and as no one else could: from the inside out. But even on TV, life comes at you fast, death comes at you last. Requiescat in flashback.
Now here’s my manager, Harriet, texting CALL ME. IT’S A GOOD THING, or caps to that effect. I call her back and it is indeed a good thing. Manhattan Theater Club is planning a Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s classic The Little Foxes with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating in the roles of sisters-in-law Regina and Birdie. Direction by Daniel Sullivan. They want me to play Ben Hubbard. Rehearsals start the day after I wrap BCS.
I was on my way out of Dodge anyway, so… time to move to a new town.
Now, Albuquerque-to-New York is how the move looks on the map, and the destination in question is located on the narrow, storied isle of Manhattan, but that’s not the town I mean. It’s the one that springs up with every new theatrical production. We’re strangers at first (with a few old friends in the mix) but eventually, we’ll all know each other’s names and much of each other’s business. In the beginning, the town’s more like a mining camp—muddy roads linking rudimentary buildings—but soon we’re helping our new neighbors plant gardens and raise barns and build schools. We become a community, with inside jokes, shared stories and a measure of municipal pride bordering on jingoism.
Most new productions have this plucky, pioneer-stock feel. For an actor coming into an already-running show, it’s a slightly different experience, but the social sphere of an acting company is generally very welcoming. My two month-long stays in David Cromer’s production of Our Town (Barrow Street Theater, out of Chicago, by way of Heaven) made me a lifelong Grover’s Corners resident. I mention Our Town not only to remark on the love and hospitality that company showed me from day one, but also to cite Thornton Wilder’s conceit (that a little dewdrop of a town may also be the world) as a way of shoring up my modest premise herein. Allegories are meant to be borrowed. It’s what makes them universal.
Dan Sullivan had directed the 2007 revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. I was lucky enough to be aboard that worthy craft and relished the opportunity to work with Dan again. I knew Laura Linney a little bit, every encounter a pleasure commensurate with my sky-high regard for her work. I’d met Cynthia once, briefly—a quick post-show hello in some theater hallway—but I knew her as a smart, fearless actor with a glowing rep among her peers. And my wife’s old pal, the intrepid Richard Thomas is playing the (spoiler) doomed Horace. Well, now Annette is going to see this for sure!
We meet. We greet.
It’s tempting to imagine some of my new fellow citizens recast in roles other than those listed next to their names in the Playbill. Darren Goldstein, a big dude with great timing and a welcome wit, might be our philosophical blacksmith, dispensing wisdom as he shoes ol’ Agatha. The glorious Francesca Carpanini is the town’s sweetheart, smart and headstrong, but all melty when springtime lights her up. Michael Benz is our young, idealistic newspaper editor who suffers no fools and speaks truth to power. David Alford’s the newly arrived traveler, tired of the hustle, longing for the simple life. Charles Turner is the man who has seen it all from the porch of his general store, and will tell all while weighing your dry beans. And what Charles didn’t see, Caroline Clay did, and she will fill in the scandalous details. Richard Thomas is our decent, honest Mayor, very busy today, but he’ll squeeze you in. Stage managers Sheriff Roy Harris and Deputy Denise Yaney are our incorruptible keepers of the peace, tough but fair. They run a clean town.
And Dan Sullivan is the Holy Man, in the shack just up the gully, said to know things we can only guess at. He has seen shapes in the shadows. If we’re lucky, he’ll share his secrets.
(NOTE: The above has nothing to do with the plot or characters of The Little Foxes, of course. I only borrow allegories.)
Because our leading ladies are each working on two roles, we one-part-only slackers get a lot of extra rehearsal, not a bad thing. Ms. Hellman’s rich, brilliant play opens out like a reluctant rose, the warm fragrance of Southern gentility and charm counterpointing the cold equations of the Hubbard clan. And every day, we bring our tools to the rehearsal hall, lay out the blueprints, raise the barn. Rehearse, lunch, repeat.
It was a nice little town while it lasted. We opened big and never saw a lot of empty seats. People came to see us multiple times, wanting to catch both Reginas and both Birdies. We got the laughs we knew were there and had total strangers help us identify the unsuspected ones. We lobbed enough venal bad will at each other to make the play go ‘round, and reaped the indescribable high that comes of being in really good company.
Every night, places call for act one would find all or most of us behind the dining room door upstage left, with a stout curtain separating us all from the “real” world. After some of the loose talk and happy horseshit actors use to dull the terror, the cast would link hands, and a chant would begin. A low, gutty chord, mainly modal with a few flatted fifths for color and some soprano stylings on the high end:
…in a room that doesn’t exist, in an unnamed town in 1900 Alabama, on the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman née Biltmore Theater, in New York City, New York. It’s our home town until closing night, when we abandon what we’ve built, taking away what now belongs to us, and leaving the rest to that lonely sentry, the ghost light.
Just for luck, we leave a rainbow behind.
And just like that, the little town vanishes.