A two-character, three-page play written to honor a talented theater critic, newspaper colleague, and friend who just announced an early retirement. The characters in this play no way resemble my friend. That would be purely coincidental …
Curtain goes up, in an empty theater.
On an empty stage, two characters face each other. One, Jim, is fully lit. The other is in the shadows. We enter in the middle of a conversation.
Voice: You’re sure?
Jim: Yeah, I’m sure.
Voice: No chance of talking you out of it?
Voice: Not even …
Voice: You don’t even know what I was going to say.
Jim: Yeah, I do. You don’t think I’ve been going over all the “not evens …” for weeks?
Voice: Yeah, but …
Jim: And the “What ifs …”
Jim: Don’t act surprised. You’ve been there the whole time.
Voice: OK. Then how about “Why?” It is not like we’ve gone around that block a lot of times.
(The Voice pauses.) Tell me, Jim. What is your character’s motivation?
Jim: My what?
Voice: Your character. You’re the one who is always wondering about the motivation of characters in a play. This is your play. Your script. What’s the big “why” behind what you are doing?
Jim: My “Why?” Jesus, it’s a buyout. How much “why” do you need? I’m not being pushed. I’m not being cut. It’s an opportunity. Are you familiar with my world at all? We don’t get opportunities like this much anymore. Mostly we get crap — and shit from a woman who retired decades ago who writes every time we make a grammatical error.
I get to walk away with my dignity intact.
Voice: OK, Jim. I get it. It is an opportunity. But an opportunity isn’t a reason. It is just a trigger you get to pull. Or not.
Picture yourself in a dark alley, Jim. That’s your career standing there in front of you, in the shadows. Your future. You got the drop on it and now your future is looking down the pipe of your Sig P226 …
Jim: Is that a gun?
Voice: Of course it is. Would you go into something like this with a flyswatter?
Jim: I don’t like it.
Voice: Oh, so now you’ve got opinions. OK, I’ll bite. Are you a pacifist? What’s wrong with a Sig P226?
Jim: Too esoteric. Audiences will be wondering what the heck a Sig is — and meanwhile, the action has moved on. It is frustrating if you are sitting out there in the seats.
Voice: So, still the critic, eh? You haven’t taken the buyout yet. At least in your head.
Jim: You should know.
Voice: OK, let me try this again — at the risk of losing your audience through meandering self-indulgent dialogue.
Jim: Just keep it tight and focused. The audience will keep up.
Voice: Picture yourself in a dark alley, Jim. That’s your career standing there in front of you, in the shadows. Your future. You got the drop on it and now your future is looking down the pipe of your Glock 19 …
Jim: Now you’re talking.
Voice: Please. …
Jim: Oh, sorry. I’m crashing through your fourth wall, aren’t I?
Voice: Just let me make my point. Then you get your own soliloquy. Deal?
Jim: Deal. But hurry up. I think you should have made your point a long time ago. You’re really imposing on the goodwill of the audience.
Voice: Critics …
Voice: Your career is standing in front of you, in the shadows. You got the drop on it and now it is facing down the barrel of your Glock. You can’t see its hands in the dark. Does it have a gun?
Jim: What kind of gun.
Voice: Oh, shut up.
Jim: Just messing with your head.
Voice: Well stop it. Besides, it’s your head.
Jim: Oooh, right. Go on.
Voice: Your right hand grows clammy. You think the gun might slip. Unless, unless you shoot it right away. Time stretches in a phosphorescent glow — a gap of eternity between your hand, the gun, and the neural impulse that tells you to pull the trigger. Or not. …
Jim: Waiting ….
Voice: Do you pull the trigger? That’s an act. What is the “why?” behind it? Why would you pull the trigger, Jim?
Jim: I’ll ignore the fact that you are implying career suicide here.
And yes, I pull the trigger. I pull it before that shadowy thing, whose future is so far in the dark behind it, gets the drop on me. Isn’t this a bit melodramatic, to say “kill or be killed”? Voice, you are a drama queen …
So let’s just say that as much as I love that thing in the shadows — and as much as it loves me — I have suffered a million tiny little deaths at its hands, like mini mordiditas.
Voice: Ooooh, El Indio’s. I love their …
Jim: Yes. Tiny little bites. Budget cuts. Circulation dives. Layoffs. Retirements. New owners — every year. Mentors now dead. Crazy readers. Bad coffee. Long hours. Pens that run out of ink. Computers that crash. Editors. Copy editors. Deadlines. Loss of dignity. Egos. Overheated theaters. Cold rehearsal halls. Empty Coke and candy machines at midnight. Deja vu over and over and over again.
And this sounds crazy, but, these things are also part of the good stuff. It is all tied up in one thing. Inseparable. And that one thing tells you when it is time to go.
You work for 30 years and you tell yourself, “This is the life.” But then something happens. All these inseparable things make you think “Maybe real-life — or another life — is passing me by.”
But that thing in the dark that I love, that thing with a future behind it that I can no longer see, has a death grip on me.
So I …
Voice: … must pull the trigger?
++++++ ++++++ ++++++
“So, I realize this is not of huge import given everything that’s going on right now, but I wanted to let you know that as of the beginning of April I will be departing from my position as Union-Tribune theater critic. I want to emphasize that this is entirely my decision — the company offered voluntary buyout packages to employees a few weeks ago, and I’ve decided to take advantage of the opportunity to step away (after 12 years in the critic’s chair and nearly 30 at the U-T), reconnect with my family and look to new horizons.”
And that, my friends, is how a talented theater critic’s career ends.
A way too-humble farewell, in my opinion.
But James Hebert brought humility to the critic’s chair. And compassion. Two things you didn’t see much of in the people who occupied those chairs when Jim and I were first starting out.
Of course, Jim covered San Diego’s Big Three, the Broadway incubators — Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, and San Diego Rep. These guys were always prepping at least one big play or musical for a Broadway debut.
But Jim also loved covering the incubators of the incubators, the small houses that barely scraped together 50 to 100 seats and struggled to fill them. Jim’s love for the small theaters put butts in their seats.
Oh, jeez, this is sounding like a eulogy.
That’s not my intent.
I learned about Jim’s departure from the San Diego Union-Tribune from his Facebook post. The comments from old colleagues and local theater people are heartwarming. They will miss Jim.
Damn straight they will.
Quite coincidentally, on another Facebook post, a home-bound San Diego theater producer asked all other home-bound actors, writers, and directors to write two-character, three-page plays — and submit them to her so they can be read live on Friday over a Facebook channel.
Suddenly a “voice” in my head started talking to “Jim” and an hour later, I had a two-character, three-page play. That wasn’t how I’d planned to spend Monday afternoon.
No way is this play about my friend James Hebert. I have no idea what goes on in his head. I swear.
Anyway, I sent this to my friend Jim with my congratulations and said maybe it beats a Hallmark card or an emoticon on Facebook.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to give a retiring theater critic a play as a going-away present.
In short, Jim liked it: “BOB!! Oh man. I mean, this … first of all, how long have you been living in my head, man??!!”
Jim, the real Jim, is the one who said I should publish it, so blame Jim. Although, this is not about him. I swear.