An exclusive restaurant in Manhattan.
Tess Adams, eighty-three, a legendary actress, is dining with Arthur Fields, a very successful actor in his late thirties. They have just been seated. Their waiter, Walter, an actor playwright in his thirties, comes to take their order.
Walter: Good evening Tess. How are you?
Tess: I’m fine, Walter. This is Arthur Fields, as I’m sure you know. Arthur, this is Walter, the best waiter I’ve ever had, and as you know I’ve had many excellent waiters.
Arthur: Pleased to meet you. (frowns) I know you, don’t I? Did you work at another restaurant in Manhattan before this one?
Walter: No, I’ve only worked here. Ten years now. I think you know me from my play. Funny You Should Mention It.
Arthur: Oh my God. The play that made me. You’re Walter Iverson. Now I see you. How great to see you again. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing your marvelous play. Changed my life beyond my wildest imaginings, and in the best of ways.
Walter: I had longer hair back then and no glasses and no mustache.
Arthur: I remember, and I also remember you said very little during rehearsals, though whenever you did say something, it was spot on. I had no idea you were a waiter. I had you living in France, writing your next masterpiece.
Walter: Thank you for having me there. Sounds divine.
Tess: You wrote Funny You Should Mention It, Walter? Why didn’t you tell me?
Walter: Never came up.
Arthur: (to Tess) I’m not exaggerating when I say his play made me. (to Walter) That was your first play, wasn’t it? Surely you’ve written others.
Walter: Several. In fact, I thought you’d been sent the two I wrote especially for you. Or so my agent told me.
Arthur: Never got them. I’ve been in LA and London most of the last seven years. A few weeks into the run of your play everything just exploded for me, and things haven’t calmed down since.
Walter: Well deserved.
Arthur: Thank you. I would love to read the plays you wrote for me, and any others you’ve got.
Walter: I could ask my agent to try again, though that didn’t seem to work the first time.
Arthur: Who’s your agent?
Walter: Natalie James.
Arthur: Ah. Well let’s not worry about her until I read your plays and want to option them. Can you bring them by our apartment? I’ll give you the address and my phone number and we’ll hook up.
Tess: I’d love to see your plays, too, Walter. Any parts for me?
Walter: I always write parts for you.
Tess: Then do bring me copies when I come next week.
Walter: I will. And now to the business at hand. We have two fabulous specials tonight.
Tess: Oh just do as you always do. You know what I like. I’m giving Arthur supper, so do as you always do.
Walter: (to Arthur) I’ll be bringing red wine. Will that be satisfactory for you?
Arthur: Whatever Tess says.
Walter: (bows) I shall return.
Arthur: That man is a genius. Did you ever get to see Funny You Should Mention It?
Tess: Three times. Best thing I’d seen in years and years, and there’s been nothing as good since, except maybe Mavis Appleton’s Hamlet which was great fun, though certainly nothing new. I wonder why Walter’s agent didn’t send you his plays.
Arthur: God I hope he’s not on somebody’s shit list.
Tess: I hope not, too. He’s the sweetest person.
Walter returns with a bottle of red wine, which he opens and pours for both of them to taste.
Tess: (after her taste) Splendid.
Arthur: (after his taste) Fantastic. I’ll want to get a case of that.
Walter: (filling their glasses) I shall write down the particulars for you.
Arthur: Thank you. (drinks) So whet my appetite, Walter. What are the plays you wrote for me about?
Walter: The first one, which I finished about a year after you starred in my play, is called Café Epiphany. It’s about an Episcopal minister who loses his faith, and in the depths of despair decides to open a coffee house in a forsaken neighborhood. This precipitates a gathering of oddballs, romance ensues, and our hero’s faith is reborn.
Arthur: Sounds fantastic. Can you bring it by tomorrow?
Walter: As early as you say.
Tess: What about the other one?
Walter: The other one is called Lover of Love. It’s a comedy of sorts, but serious, too. About a happily married couple. Or so it seems until the husband – the part I wrote for you, Arthur – discovers his wife has two lovers, a man and a woman who are as unaware of each other and the husband, as the husband was unaware of them. Without telling his wife’s lovers who he is, the husband manages to meet both of them, and eventually the four convene for a roller coaster second act with a surprising denouement.
Arthur: I can’t wait to read them. Ellen and I have been hunting for years to find a good new play to do together.
Walter: I have three others I think you’d like, too.
Arthur: Bring us all your plays. Please.
Tess: (gazes at Walter) And to think for all this time I never knew what you did besides wait on me.
The lights dim to darkness.
The lights come back up on the spacious living room of a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Larry, an actor in his thirties, is sitting on the sofa, gazing into his laptop computer. The apartment door opens and Walter enters, home from his restaurant job.
Larry: (looks up from his computer) You look exultant. Did you meet someone marvelous? Get a call back?
Walter: No. (hangs his coat by the door) But I waited on Tess Adams as I do every Thursday, and her guest tonight was none other than Arthur Fields.
Larry: Oh my God, I love him. He’s so hot, and he’s in absolutely everything these days. And he’s married to Ellen Coleman who is beyond anything. Do you think he’s gay?
Walter: (puts a kettle on for tea) I gave up guessing long ago, Larry. Wrong too many times. Vincent would know at a glance, but not I.
Larry: Speaking of Vincent, he called from Des Moines about a half-hour ago, desperate to speak to you. Says he aches for Manhattan. Poor dear. Stuck in the hinterlands.
Walter: (sits in an armchair) I’ll call him in a little while. How was the show tonight?
Larry: Brutal as ever. There’s a reason all the other dancers are in their early twenties and not in their mid-thirties like yours truly. Two hours of hip-hop anymore is about ninety minutes too many for me. I have to do the play twenty-seven more times, and then I must take a break or I may never walk again.
Walter: Maybe you should stop now. You don’t want to injure yourself.
Larry: I can’t break the contract. I must stay in good with the casting director. She loves that I’m older. I know I can get through twenty-seven more shows. I have to. And then I’ll pray the next time she wants me, there’s much more singing and much less dancing.
Walter gets up to make tea.
Walter: Want some tea?
Larry: (gets up) No, I’m gonna crash. See you in the morning.
Walter: Sleep well.
Larry: Oh I will. Like the dead.
Larry exits and Walter carries the phone to the dining room table where he sets down his mug of tea and dials Vincent’s number. Vincent is Walter’s former apartment mate, an actor who lived in New York for seventeen years before moving to Iowa to teach high school Drama.
Walter: Vincent. Walter. (listens) What’s going on? (listens) Good old Diary of Anne Frank. A high school favorite. (listens) Oh don’t worry about that. Please, Vincent. You’ll pay me back some day. I’m fine. Take your time. (listens) I mean it, Vincent. I’m fine. Please don’t worry about the money. All in good time. (listens) You’re welcome. (listens) Well… no. Not dating anyone. Almost done with the second draft of Little Giant Changes. Thank you for your notes. They were very helpful. Oh and you’ll like this. Tonight I waited on Tess Adams, and her guest was none other than Arthur Fields. (listens) Yes. Gorgeous as ever. And guess what? He never got my plays. Proclaimed to Tess that Funny You Should Mention It made his career. (listens) Yes. And he wants to read Café Epiphany and Lover of Love and all the others, too. (listens) No, I’m gonna hand deliver them. Either Natalie never sent them or Arthur’s agent didn’t pass them on to him. (listens) Who knows? (listens) I’m trying not to be paranoid, but the longer I’m in this business, the harder it is not to think something is very rotten in Denmark, AKA Manhattan. (listens) That’s a lovely thought, me being on the faculty in Des Moines with you, but if I give up here I’m moving to the left coast. (listens) No, not LA again. (listens) I don’t know. A small town where I can be in plays and experience this thing I’ve heard about called quiet. (laughs) I love you, too. Sleep well.
The lights fade to darkness.
When the lights come up again, we are in the office of Walter’s agent, Natalie James. Natalie, a woman in her fifties, is sitting at her desk, Walter sitting across from her.
Natalie: I’m glad you called, Walter, because I’ve been meaning to have you come in and sign documents to formally terminate our representation agreement.
Walter: (stunned) Why do you want to terminate our agreement?
Natalie: It’s been seven years since you had a new play produced, and though Funny You Should Mention It still gets a few small productions every year, we just think it’s time to clear some space. Any future residuals from your play will go directly to you, and we will no longer take twenty per cent.
Walter: And the seven subsequent plays I gave you to shop for me?
Natalie: We will have nothing further to do with those plays. All rights reverting to you. We have a box for you at the front desk with all the copies we had on hand.
Walter: May I ask when you stopped shopping them?
Natalie: I’m not sure what you mean.
Walter: How long ago did you stop sending my plays to actors and directors and producers and theatre companies?
Natalie: (invents something) Oh maybe a year ago. Two years? Not sure.
Walter: Why didn’t you tell me then?
Natalie: Well… because it wasn’t that I didn’t want to show them, there just wasn’t any interest in you.
Walter: And the plays I wrote for Arthur Fields? Did you ever send them to his agent as you said you would?
Natalie: That was eons ago, Walter. I’m sure I did.
Walter: Well… so be it. Bring forth the termination documents.
Natalie: Denise will take care of you at the front desk. I’m just swamped. Good luck.
Walter walks out of Natalie’s office as the lights fade to darkness.
As the lights come up, Arthur Fields ushers Walter into a swank living room.
Arthur: Sorry about the mess. We just got back from LA and we’re leaving for London in three days. Something to drink?
Arthur: Coming right up. (calls) Max? You there?
Max, a middle-aged British fellow, emerges from the kitchen.
Max: Yes, Arthur.
Arthur: Max, this is Walter Iverson. He wrote Funny You Should Mention It, the play that lifted me out of poverty and anonymity so I could hire you to take care of us.
Max: (to Walter) Very pleased to meet you. I saw the off West End production of your play at the Guinness and laughed until I cried. Brilliant.
Walter: Thank you. I went over for rehearsals to help translate the American English into British English, and I had a great time. Should have stayed over there.
Max: I went twice because I laughed so hard the first time, I missed half the lines. I’m surprised it didn’t jump to a bigger theatre and run for years. (to Arthur) What may I get for you?
Arthur: Coffee and something to nibble on, please.
Max: Right away.
Ellen Coleman, Arthur’s wife, a beauty in her thirties, enters from the hallway.
Ellen: (crossing the room to shake Walter’s hand) I’m Ellen.
Walter: A pleasure to meet you. I’m an ardent fan.
Ellen: As we are of your plays. They’re magnificent.
Arthur: They really are, Walter. We’ve been reading the scenes together every day for the last week, though we’re supposed to be learning our lines for the movie we’re making in England. Your lines, trust me, are immeasurably better.
Walter: I’m thrilled you like the plays.
Arthur: We love them. All of them. And especially the ones you wrote for me.
Ellen: Please. Sit down.
Walter sits on the sofa. Max enters with a tray bearing three coffee mugs and a plate of cookies, which he sets on the coffee table.
Arthur: (sits beside Walter) Thanks Max.
Max exits. Ellen hands a mug to Walter, a mug to Arthur, and takes the last mug for herself.
Walter: I appreciate your taking the time to see me, and I’m ecstatic you love the plays.
Arthur: I wish I could say we were going to produce them, which we would love to do, but we can’t because… (looks at Ellen) there’s a problem.
Walter: I thought there might be, given my recent dismissal by my agent, though what the problem is I can’t imagine.
Ellen: Your agent just ended things with you?
Walter: A few days ago.
Ellen: I wonder why she waited so long?
Walter: What do you mean?
Arthur: Walter, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but according to everyone we’ve spoken to… and we talked to several very well-connected people, you’ve been persona non grata in the biz for at least five years now. No one knows why, but apparently you are toxic.
Walter: Toxic. As in poisonous?
Arthur: As in not to be associated with.
Walter: (in shock) For the last five years?
Ellen: I’m so sorry, Walter. It’s sickening, but… it’s what happens sometimes. We know several other people this has happened to, though none of them had written seven plays we’d love to produce, but… we can’t.
Walter: (awareness dawning) Oh my God.
Ellen: Remembering something?
Walter: Five years ago I was cast in a leading role in Martin Veld’s new play, Never Friends.
Arthur: Huge hit. Soon to be a movie. Which part?
Walter: Milton. The bartender. My big break as an actor. And three days before opening night, I was fired. No explanation given. I was wrecked for months. And when I climbed out of my depression, I called Susan Volk… you know Susan. She produced Funny You Should Mention It. And she said she’d call me right back, but she never did. And when I called her again the next day, her secretary took my number, but I never heard from her. And Desmond Jones, who I thought was my great friend after he was in my play with you, he wouldn’t talk to me either. I thought it was because he’d become too big a star to associate with little me, but maybe not.
Arthur: He’s one of the people we called.
Walter: What did he say?
Arthur: He said he was told by his agent to have nothing to do with you or he would regret it.
Walter: But why? All I’ve ever done is write plays and audition for parts and… (muses) No wonder except for a summer stock gig in Maine, there’s been nothing for five years. Nothing. And I didn’t do anything wrong. I know I didn’t.
Ellen: I’m sure you didn’t, Walter, but it just takes one person in a position of power to turn against you, and you can be knocked out of the running forever.
Walter: Someone who doesn’t even know me? Why would they do something like that?
Arthur: The people we spoke to have no idea why you were blacklisted. And they looked into it for us because we love these plays and wanted to know if there was any way we could make things right again for you, but that’s apparently not possible.
Walter: So I’ve been blacklisted for no reason except… I’m me?
Arthur: Maybe someone was offended by your play. Or maybe someone was enemies with someone who was involved in the production of your play, and when the play was a success, they took revenge on you. Or maybe someone resents you for succeeding with your play without paying your dues. You did come out of nowhere, and the entrenched ones hate that, especially if you didn’t use the opportunity of your success to make nice with those above you.
Ellen: Or maybe an ex-lover became lovers with one of these people and convinced them to punish you for jilting her.
Walter: I’ve never jilted anyone.
Ellen: Or so you think.
Walter: Who are these people who have so much power? Don’t you have power? You’re two of the most famous actors in the world.
Ellen: We are tiny fish in this sea of sharks.
Arthur: Bit actors in the larger play.
Ellen: And the person or people who did this to you live on the highest floors of the castle. So far above us we will never know who most of them are. And the few we do know, we are oh socareful never to offend them.
Arthur: Else they will do to us what they did to you.
Walter: I don’t want to believe this is true, though if it is, everything that’s happened to me in the last five years makes perfectly horrible sense. So let’s say it is true. That no one will read my plays or give me a part. Any advice as I’m about to turn thirty-five?
Arthur: Get out of town. And that includes LA and London. Find a good place to live, write your plays, and some years from now try again when the dust has settled and your enemies may have forgotten why they hated you.
Walter takes a last sip of coffee and stands up.
Walter: I hope I haven’t compromised you by coming here.
Arthur: (gets up) If anyone asks, we’ll say we were celebrating the eight-year anniversary of the production of your marvelous play that made me. For which I will be forever grateful.
Walter: As I will be forever grateful knowing you loved what I wrote for you, and that my plays were worthy of a larger audience despite the intercession of the evil ones.
Ellen: Your plays are more than worthy. They’re works of genius. And it breaks our hearts we can’t bring them to the world.