Walter Breaks Down

The spacious living room and kitchen of a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Walter, an actor and playwright in his late twenties, is lying on the sofa under a comforter, staring at the ceiling. Walter has lived in New York for two years and has been ill for several weeks.

The building entrance intercom buzzes. Walter remains lying on the sofa. The buzzer sounds again. With a great effort Walter gets up, feels dizzy, and sits down. The buzzer sounds a third time, and with a supreme effort, Walter goes to the door and clicks on the intercom.

Walter: Who is it?

Maureen: It’s me.

Walter: Oh hi.

He buzzes her in, opens the door a crack, and returns to the sofa. A few moments later, Maureen, Walter’s girlfriend, an actress dancer in her thirties, arrives with two bulging grocery bags. She sets them on the kitchen counter, hangs up her coat, and closes the door. Now she puts a kettle on for tea and starts putting away the groceries.

Maureen: How are you feeling today, Sweetheart?

Walter: Same. Weak. Tired. Every time I start to fall asleep, I start coughing. Forgot your key?

Maureen: No. It’s somewhere in my purse. I just didn’t have a free hand to look for it, and I forgot it was hard for you to get up. Sorry.

Walter: Not a problem.

Maureen: I made you some fabulous chicken soup. Lots of garlic to cure what ails you.

Walter: Would that it were so simple.

Maureen gets a quart jar of chicken soup out of a grocery bag, pours the soup into a pan, and sets the pan on the stove. Now she comes to Walter, feels his forehead, sits beside him, and holds his hand.

Maureen: Sweetheart, don’t you think maybe you should see the doctor again?

Walter: Why? The genius said there was nothing wrong with me, when there obviously is.

Maureen: That was three weeks ago. You’re not eating. You’re not sleeping. This is crazy. I want to make an appointment for you. Okay?

Walter: Okay.

Maureen goes to check on the soup.

Maureen: I heard from Francis today. He wants to share some notes with you before the reading. In case you want to make any changes. He said he’d be happy to come here to work with you.

Walter: I don’t have the strength to talk to him.

Maureen: (exasperated) Walter. You can talk to him for a little while. This is your play. Your dream come true. Are you that depressed?

Walter: (snaps at her) I’m ill. I can barely stand up.

Maureen: (calms herself) Can you sit up to have some soup?

Walter: (abashed) Yes.

With effort, he sits up as she brings him a bowl of soup on a tray.

Maureen: I’ll get you a piece of bread.

Walter: I’m sorry, Maureen. Sorry I snapped at you. (bows his head and weeps) Sorry I’m so fucked up.

Maureen: You’re not fucked up. (brings him the bread) You’re just having a hard time.

Walter: (looks at her) Why did this have to happen now? It’s like a bad dream.

Maureen: (sits beside him) Why do you think it had to happen now?

Walter: What do you mean?

Maureen: You asked the question. Why did this have to happen now?

Walter: I have no idea.

Maureen: You’ve been lying here for six weeks and you have no idea?

Walter: What are you talking about? I’m ill. That’s why I’m lying here. That wasn’t the question. The question was why did I have to get sick when I’m about to have a staged reading of my play?

Maureen: You don’t think there’s a connection?

Walter: What are you saying? That I’m faking this?

Maureen: You’re obviously not faking, and I would never accuse you of that. I’m saying that until you got the news Francis wanted to direct a reading of your play, you were strong as an ox and we were making love every day. And a week later you wake up weak as a kitten, and now six weeks have gone by and you’re wasting away, though the doctor said he couldn’t find anything wrong with you. So I’m suggesting maybe there’s a connection between your illness and your success with your play, and maybe you need to take a look at that.

Walter: And how would you suggest I do that?

Maureen: Go to a psychotherapist.

Walter: With what money?

Maureen: I’ll lend you the money. When you can work again, you can pay me back. Or not. I don’t care. I want you to get some help.

The door opens and Vincent and Leo enter. Vincent is Walter’s apartment mate, an actor in his thirties. Leo is Vincent’s pal, an actor and massage therapist in his fifties.

Vincent: (cheerfully) No sex in the living room, kiddies. You know the rules.

Maureen: Fear not, Vincent. This is just soup foreplay.

Vincent: Smells divine. How’s our patient?

Maureen waits for Walter to answer.

Walter: About the same.

Vincent: Did you forget Leo’s giving you a massage today? My treat.

Walter: I don’t think I can do that today.

Vincent: You don’t have to do anything. You just lie there and Leo does the rest.

Leo: If you don’t want a massage today, I’m happy to give you one another time.

Walter: Okay. Another time.

Maureen: (stands up) I don’t think you want to get better, Walter. You should see yourself. The way you spurn any kind of help.

Walter: Here we go again. You do think I’m making this up, don’t you?

Maureen: I think this has everything to do with your play and nothing to do with your body, except your body is expressing how you feel about having success with your play. And the reason you don’t want me or Leo or anyone to soothe you is because you’re doing this to punish yourself.

Walter: Why would I do that? This is what I’ve always wanted.

Leo: I know this is none of my business, but if you’d like I could facilitate an investigation of what’s going on with you, Walter.

Walter: What do you mean?

Leo sits in an armchair near the sofa.

Leo: I was a psychotherapist before I became a massage therapist, and if you’re up for it, we could do a session of questions and answers and see what we find.

Walter: Now? I can barely sit up.

Vincent: Then lie down.

Walter: Why are you doing this to me?

Leo: Who are you speaking to?

Walter: All of you.

Leo: I’m doing this to help you.

Maureen: (sitting) So am I.

Vincent: (sits down) The time has come, my friend, to surrender to your angels.

Walter looks at all of them and surrenders to their good intentions.

Walter: Okay. (puts the soup tray on the coffee table) Lets have a session.

Leo: Good. Wonderful. How old are you, Walter?

Walter: Twenty-seven.

Leo: Your illness befell you seven weeks ago?

Walter: Yes.

Leo: What are your symptoms?

Walter: Exhaustion. Extreme weakness. A cough that disallows sleep. Zero appetite. Depression.

Leo: And prior to your depression, how was your life going?

Walter: Very well. (looks at Maureen) Wonderful partner. (looks at Vincent) Great housemate and friend. Good job. Some luck getting acting work. And Francis Hoffman is going to direct a staged reading of my play at New Hope.

Leo: How do you feel about having a renowned director stage a reading of your play?

Walter: (with no enthusiasm) Good. Great.

Leo: You don’t sound particularly excited about it. Or happy.

Walter: I’m ill.

Leo: I understand. So… what is the title of your play?

Walter: Funny You Should Mention It.

Leo: Good title. What’s it about?

Walter: It’s about the year in my life when I found out I was Jewish. When I was thirteen.

Leo: You didn’t know you were Jewish until you were thirteen? Why was that?

Walter: My mother was Jewish, and when she was a little girl during the Depression her parents changed their last name from Borenstein to Bailey to deal with the ferocious anti-Semitism of the time. My mother was twice stoned by other children when they found out she was Jewish. Literally stoned. In Los Angeles of all places. Which terror coincided with her parents insisting she deny her Jewishness for her safety and success in the world, and so… denying her Jewishness became her habit. She married a non-Jew, my father, and it wasn’t until I spent the summer with my Jewish grandparents in Los Angeles when I was thirteen that I found out I was Jewish.

Leo: The Baileys? I thought you said they didn’t want people to know they were Jewish. So how did you find out?

Walter: By the late 1950s they’d decided it was safe to come out, though they kept their non-Jewish last name. My mother, on the other hand, never felt it was safe to let anyone know she was Jewish.

Leo: How sad. And what do your parents think of you being an actor and a playwright in this theatre world that is so very Jewish?

Walter: They’re not happy about it.

Leo: Can you elaborate on that?

Walter: I think from my mother’s point of view, she’s afraid… I don’t know… consciously or unconsciously, that people will find out I’m Jewish, which will lead to people finding out she is Jewish. And my father thinks being an actor and a writer is phony. Stupid. Cowardly.

Leo: He said that to you?

Walter: Many times.

Leo: That being an actor and a writer is cowardly?

Walter: Yes.

Leo: He said this to you recently?

Walter: I don’t speak to my parents very often, but when I do, my father never fails to let me know what he thinks of my career choice. His favorite expression is that I’m pissing my life away in the company of crackpots and losers and criminals. And my mother, in so many words, echoes him, though, ironically, she aspired to be an actor before marrying my father.

Vincent: Quite the neurotic soup.

Leo: Indeed. (to Walter) Yet you defied them.

Walter: Yes.

Leo: Must have been difficult. Must be difficult.

Walter: (whispering) Very.

Leo: What does your father do for a living?

Walter: He’s a doctor. A pediatrician.

Vincent: How’s that for irony?

Leo: Knows everything? Or thinks he does?

Walter: Oh. You’ve met my father?

Leo: Know the type. Was he abusive to you? Verbally? Physically?

Walter: (after a long hesitation) Yes.

Leo: Did he abuse you for wanting to be an actor and a writer?

Walter: Yes, and for many other things, too.

Leo: What other things?

Walter: Oh… he didn’t ever like me to… doesn’t ever want me to… (can’t find the word)

Maureen: Outshine him.

Walter: That’s actually a very accurate way of putting it. He’s a profound narcissist.

Leo: Likes to be the center of attention.

Walter: Always. And if I or my siblings or my mother ever became the focus of attention when he was present, he was not happy, and often violently not happy.

Leo: So let’s see what we’ve got so far. You’re not supposed to let anyone know you’re Jewish. You’re not supposed to be an actor or a playwright, and most especially not a successful one. As far as your parents are concerned.

Walter: (bows his head) Yes.

Leo: Yet here you are in New York succeeding with your play, which is all about being Jewish. Sounds like you’re breaking all the taboos, Walter. And doing so in a big way. A big successful public way. No wonder you’re having such a difficult time.

Walter raises his head and gazes in astonishment at Leo and Maureen and Vincent.

Walter: I’m trying to kill myself rather than defy my parents. To die before I can tell the world the truth.

Leo: You were doing that. Or part of you was. But now that you know the reason you’ve been ill, you can get well. And to expedite that, we need to get the energy of those people out of your body and out of your psyche so you can proceed with your life unencumbered by their psychoses. I don’t think neuroses is a strong enough word for what they implanted in you.

Walter weeps. Leo goes to sit beside Walter and allows him to cry for a time before firmly taking hold of Walter’s shoulders.

Leo: (strongly) Tell your father to get out of your body.

Walter: Get out of my body.

Leo: Shout it. “Get out of my body, Dad. Get out! Get out!”

Walter: (shouting) Get out of my body, Dad. Get out! Get out!

Leo: (shaking Walter) Again.

Walter: Get out of my body, Dad. Get out! Get out!

Leo: Now with all your might. (releasing him). Shout him out of you.

Walter: (shouting) Get out of my body. Get out, get out, get out!

Leo: Now tell your mother to get out.

Walter: (jumps up, shouting) Get out of me, Mom. Get out. I’m Jewish. So sue me. I’m Jewish and I’m a writer and an actor. And I’m proud of it. I love being an actor! I love who I am. So fuck you! Fuck you, Dad. Get out of me.

Leo: Keep going, Walter. Keep going.

Walter: (smiles) We could be here for a very long time.

Leo: I’ve got all day.

Maureen: Me, too. Go for it, Sweetheart.

Vincent: (leaps up) Get out of him, you fuckers. Get out of him!

Walter: (ferociously) Get out of me! Get out of me! And stay out!

Silence falls. Walter trembles with emotion, his killing depression vanquished.

 Leo: (stands up) Well done, my friend. (embraces Walter) Well done.

Vincent: (embracing Walter) We will do this every day until you’re completely well.

Walter: I already feel better. (embraces Maureen) Thank you so much.

Maureen: I need to do what you just did. My mother is too much with me. Way too much.

Leo: And now… I’m starving. Exorcisms always make me ravenous.

Vincent: You like Thai food? We are one block away from a most excellent Thai restaurant.

Walter: My treat.

Leo: I love Thai. Red curry prawns, please.

Vincent: I shall call in our order. (going to the kitchen phone) There’s beer in the fridge, Leo. Help yourself.

Leo: (goes to the fridge) Anybody else want a beer?

Walter: I would love one.

Maureen: (hugging Walter) Welcome back, Sweetheart. (to Leo) I’d love one, too.


Pep Talk #1 a one-minute movie by Todd

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