I made my Off Broadway acting debut Saturday night.
In a Playwrights Horizons production of “The Thin Place,” I uttered the last word of the one-act play. Without any rehearsal or advance preparation. I hit my cue. To the utter amazement of Gilda and the rest of the audience.
It wasn’t the first time I strutted my thespian talents. When I was 13 I played Rusty Charlie in a summer camp production of “Guys and Dolls.” I knew my lines back then as well, though, to be honest, the director asked me to silently mouth the last word of the “Fugue for Tinhorns” opening song because I could not master the desired harmony.
There was no music involved Saturday night. I simply had to project one word from my seat at the extreme right of the first row of the audience.
Wait. First, a little background on “The Thin Place.” Written by Lucas Hnath who also authored “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “Hillary and Clinton,” and the “The Christians,” “The Thin Place” deals with the possibility of an alternative universe and paranormal communication, sometimes between the living, sometimes between the living and the dead.
A young woman, Hilda, recounts how she and her grandmother would endeavor to communicate telepathically. Sitting in an armchair on a stage devoid of anything else but a narrow table lodged between a second identical armchair, Hilda said her grandmother had subsequently died. Looking directly at me she said I somehow reminded her of her grandmother. That I looked like her. I stroked my beard in amazement, but she just continued reminiscing about her young life with her granny and her later adult life which had become entwined with Linda, a medium who acknowledged that conjuring up the dead was a trick she performed as a less expensive but more result-oriented therapy than professional medical help to relieve the anguish her customers had from some unresolved conflict with the departed.
At the end of “The Thin Place,” sitting in the chair from which she had never moved over the play’s 90 minute span, Hilda again faced me. She wanted to demonstrate telepathy, the way she did it with her grandmother. She took a pad and marker pen out of the table drawer, wrote down a word, held it to her chest and implored me to concentrate on this unknown word that she would be trying to transmit to me, her imaginary grandmother.
I thought “meatloaf” would be an appropriate homey memory but when she looked at me and asked what I had heard in my head, just behind my forehead, I replied, too softly at first for her, let alone for the audience, to hear. Louder, I said, “Umbrella.” Turning the pad toward the audience she revealed what she had written—Umbrella. The audience gasped. The stage went dark. The audience clapped.
Immediately my 15 minutes of Off Broadway stardom began. Audience members approached me to ask, Did I really receive a telepathic message? Had I been primed by the theater staff prior to the performance to say umbrella? Was I an actor planted in the audience?
No, on all counts. Just before I was ready to say “meatloaf,” I heard a faint but distinct metallic voice say, “Umbrella.” I quickly processed my role, though to be sure I at first whispered “umbrella,” hoping Hilda could read my lips. With her encouragement I repeated aloud the last word of the play.
Seated next to me, Gilda was the most confounded. She had not heard the electronic transmission. I checked around my seat. No receiver or speaker anywhere. My seat was no different than anyone else’s.
My 15 minutes of fame was nearly up, we were already standing outside the theater when I recalled retailers have sometimes used narrowcasting technology to direct messages to workers or shoppers in specific locations so as not to alert or bother customers or staff throughout a store. Messages such as a special sale for those currently in the housewares department. Or staff should clean up a spill in aisle eight.
The theater must have targeted a narrowcast to my seat alone. I couldn’t prove it but it is the only rational explanation. I was, after all, not Hilda’s grandmother. And though “meatloaf” would have been a much better word, I had no license to alter the playwright’s dialogue. So with a smile as my umbrella, I uttered the last word of the play.