BUTCHER OF DREAMS
A Suspense Novel About The Theater
Book Excerpt - Chapter One
The idea for this book came after we moved into Manhattan Plaza, a housing complex for performing artists in Hell's Kitchen. The neighborhood was crime-ridden. Live nude shows, erotic bookstores, x-rated movies were just a block away from our apartment complex. Crack cocaine was sold by dealers in the streets. Prostitutes blatantly solicited. In the mid-eighties, 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Avenues was considered one of the worst blocks in the city for crime. By the time we finished the book, the Disney Corporation had renovated the Amsterdam Theater, moved in The Lion King and Hell's Kitchen was well on its way to being gentrified. Now our area is one of the safest, cleanest neighborhoods in New York City.
Butcher of Dreamsis based on our experiences working in off-Broadway and regional repertory theaters around the country. The events are fictional, the theater is fictional, and the characters are fictional. The story takes place in 1985 and 1986-in Hell's Kitchen as it was then.
He saw it gleaming, white, like snow. His hand trembled as he reached for it. A fist struck his outstretched arm. He fell to one knee, his arms above his head. Hands pushed him down. Heavy shoes kicked him in the stomach, the head. He curled into a circle of pain.
He felt first the breeze from the huge wings. Out of the darkness the enormous bird came to him, lifting him away from the pain. He was on the bird. They did figure eights, loop the loops, sharp pulls up into the thinner air. He and the bird blotted out the sun.
People below looked up at them, shouting. He and the bird swooped low, hunting for prey, a giant shadow on the horizon.
He bent his head close to its ear. "Listen," he said. "You can hear the beating of my heart." He heard two heartbeats, his own strong boom and the other's fragile tic, tic, tic, racing like a clock.
Thursday, September 26
In the theater's darkened auditorium, Lee Fairchild wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans. Her heart was pounding wildly. She'd have to cut down on the coffee or she'd never survive the season. From her third row seat, she watched Ernst Kromer cross the stage.
The harsh, bright rehearsal lights were unkind to Kromer, exaggerating the sallowness of his face. He looked almost menacing as he swung his bad leg forward. The thick built-up shoe with its metal brace clumped on the wooden stage, loud and final, like a judge's gavel.
She told herself not to be so hard on him. He had every right to stop the rehearsal. After all, he was the director. If only he knew how to handle American actors.
Kromer stood before Barry Blackwell, sighed. "I vill show you-"
Why was Kromer riding Barry so hard? He was terrific, the best actor of the bunch.
Kromer took Barry's script. He dabbed at his eyes, a father mourning the death of his sixteen- year-old daughter. He began Barry's opening monologue, using grimaces and outsized gestures to show his grief. Indicating was what the American acting schools would call it. Barry couldn't play the part that way. He'd be a laughing stock.
Barry's ferocious scowl would have unnerved most people, but Kromer, oblivious, continued. He was going to show Barry how to do the entire monologue, Lee realized. The other performers stood there bracing themselves, dreading when it would be their turn.
Despite the largeness of Kromer's acting style, his belief was contagious. Against her will, Lee felt herself being drawn into the speech. Was that a tear, a real tear, creeping from his eye? As he wiped it away, he seemed shaken. His grief changed to anger. His chest swelled, his face reddened. He suddenly squatted, his face in his hands, howling out his grief and anger. Lee felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
When he finished, the silence was deafening. "You see?" Kromer asked Barry.
Barry nodded, his mouth tight.
"Ve'll try it again at tomorrow's rehearsal." Kromer moved on to the others, methodically dissecting the roles, male and female-acting out key elements of each part in his exaggerated way. Barry watched from the wings, his face dusky red. The other actors were white-faced, as if all the blood had been beaten out of them.
Lee slumped down in her seat. Kromer wanted puppets, not flesh and blood actors. If the first show was a flop, to attract audiences for the rest of their season they'd have to do "The Last Supper" with the original cast. If this first season was a flop, there'd be no next year. She looked at her watch. It was after six. Everyone was exhausted. "This has got to stop." Her voice came out too loud. Her actor's control was shot to hell.
"Great line reading." Barry gave a half-salute from the stage.
Kromer squinted into the dim auditorium.
"Ernst, everyone has worked through the dinner hour." Alan Dunbar's voice boomed out. He was artistic director of the company and had ultimate artistic control of all productions. She was sure he was as concerned as she was. "We'll have sick actors. We'll have the union on our necks."
Lee could hear Alan straining to keep his voice smooth, low-keyed. She wondered how long he'd been watching from the back of the room.
Kromer threw up his hands in exasperation.
The actors milled about, made motions of leaving the stage.
"You vill vait, please." It was said politely, but it was an order.
Barry clicked his heels together. "Ja, Herr Kromer."
Kromer tensed. A hush descended over the cast. Lee waited for the explosion, but Kromer simply ran a hand over his eyes. He limped to the side of the stage and sat heavily in an empty chair. "Ve must do the blocking of the nightmare scene." He signaled the stage manager, Harry O'Brien. "You vill go out for coffee?" Kromer searched in his pants pocket and handed him some bills. "Cakes too."
Harry jammed his blue watch cap on his head, his gray eyes neutral behind wire-rimmed spectacles, and hurried up the aisle.
Alan slid into the seat next to Lee.
"The critics will have a field day," she said to him in a low voice. "He's killing the actors, sucking the juice out of them." She was beginning to have doubts about the play too, a heavy European piece about a girl who died and came back to life. She sighed. "I can't believe we'll be stuck with Kromer for the next eight months."
Alan squeezed her shoulder. "Without him on the masthead, we'd have no grant, no theater. Look, love, we've got our dream. Hang tough."
Her eyes roamed the renovated auditorium. They'd worked hard. They'd scoured out the muck. They'd built a new stage to replace the rotting one, hung black drapes, put down padded theater seats. All they needed was a fantastic opening show and hordes of warm bodies passing up the glitzy Broadway musicals in favor of ensemble theater on the fringes.
"Actors. Look alive," Kromer called. "The door to the courtyard bursts open. Ve see lightning. The townspeople swirl through in a drunken celebration. They begin a dance around the old witch." Kromer blocked the scene. The actors walked through it twice.
"Now, ve play it with the masks." Kromer disappeared into the wings and returned with a large green garbage bag. He reached into the bag, and handed Barry a mask, an idiot's face, red lips slack, one eye drooping. Barry smiled ruefully, giving Kromer the finger when he turned his back to distribute masks to the other actors. Kromer gave masks to everyone but to Blandine, the dying girl, and the old witch who held her, and then took his seat in the front row of the auditorium.
He leaned forward, his voice urgent, hypnotic. "Good and evil battle for the soul of Blandine Jairus, who has died once and now must die again." His voice rose. "Carnival. Everything allowed till midnight." The townspeople surged from the wings.
At the head of the crowd was a monk with a torch. Behind him was the red death, outlined with little tinkling bells. Then came a ragged angel with horns, Barry in the drooling idiot's face, tarred and covered with feathers, a leering hunchback on a stick, a serpent devouring a baby. The line of seven actors danced and weaved, doubled back on themselves, broke apart, re-formed. They seemed to be a mob, anonymous and threatening, their mask faces frozen in grimaces of good and evil.
The monk cried out, "To the executioner." The mob, uttering grunts and moans, surged closer to Blandine. The idiot peered into her face. The red death beckoned. The old witch shrieked.
It was a powerful and chilling scene. Lee felt a thrill. If only the rest of the production worked this well. The actors too seemed excited by it.
Just as Blandine rose up, as though electrified, and fell back dead, Harry hurried down the aisle with refreshments. Blandine's mother moaned. The house lights came on.
For a split second, the actors were frozen, stunned by reality, then surrounded Harry at the apron of the stage, snapping lids off coffees and tearing cellophane off doughnuts. After they ate, without a murmur, they went through the scene a second time. Harry collected the masks as Kromer gave notes.
"Ve vill meet again tomorrow-" Kromer paused for emphasis "-at noon." The actors, stunned to silence by the lateness of the next day's rehearsal, finally managed weak whoops of joy. Kromer limped tiredly off the stage, pulling his coat from a front row seat, struggling into it as he went up the aisle.
Lee and Alan followed him out into the theater lobby. "Ernst, got a minute?" Lee asked.
The actors trickled through the side door of the lobby into the adjoining hallway and out the front door.
"Look, the nightmare scene is great." Lee took a breath. "But the leads haven't a clue about characterization."
Alan continued, "American actors aren't like European actors. They can't be shown a gesture, a facial expression and deliver instant results."
"A professional is a professional," Kromer said tersely.
"Give them a chance to bloom," Lee said. The actors weren't names, but they were talented. The core of the repertory, Barry included, were selected from over 800 resumes, many auditions, actors chosen for their skill and versatility who would play a variety of roles and styles, ages and types, before the season was out.
Kromer sighed. "This is a complicated show. Ve have only two weeks more." He walked past Lee and Alan into the hallway.
Lee followed. "American actors need psychology, motivation."
Mumbling something about the foundation getting him involved with amateurs, Kromer pushed open the front door.
The cool air felt good. It damped down the hotness in Lee's face. Tomorrow after they'd all had a good night's sleep, she'd talk with Kromer again.
She watched him make his laborious way down the steps. He limped toward the subway, looking lonely and frail, not at all like the ogre who'd hounded the actors for hours.
Dark shadows stirred in darker doorways. It was almost time for the people of the night to come out, the pimps and prostitutes, transvestites, drug dealers, the sad homeless wandering like nomads through the city.
Alan, at her side, shut the door with a chipper smile. "Don't fret. The critics will love the theatricality of Miss Jairus. They'll be snowed by Kromer's reputation. They'll fawn all over us."
Kromer's reputation was why he was here. He'd been a director with the famous Berliner Ensemble. "The critics may love Kromer. It's the actors I'm worried about," Lee said.
"We're trying to mix oil and water. Kromer is an outside-in director. American actors work inside-out." Alan frowned. "Instead of human beings onstage, we may have 15 clones of Kromer."
They both stood glumly in the hallway, imagining 15 Kromers stomping around the stage, declaiming lines in a thick accent.
"It might work for the nightmare scene," Lee said. They both laughed.
"I can't meddle with another director's work. But . . ." Alan flashed her a smile. "Maybe I can interpret him to the cast. So they can please him and protect themselves."
"If Kromer sniffs out that you're going behind his back . . ." Lee warned.
He struggled into his black leather jacket, waving her worries away. He wrapped his aviator scarf around his neck, an affectation in anyone else, but endearing to Lee. They'd been friends for a long time.
"Let me walk you to your car," he said.
She shook her head. "Scads of unfinished work is piled on my desk. And around it and under it."
He frowned. "Sleeping over?"
"Not tonight. Probably every other night this week." In the small room upstairs next to her office was a pullout couch, a small dresser where she kept a few pieces of clothing. A perfect setup for the workaholic she'd become. "We lost Jean today." Jean had been her assistant. "And our second call for subscriptions hasn't been mailed out yet."
"She got a job in dinner theater. Remind me not to hire another actor for her job. They have the morals of an alley cat." Her voice was sharp. She saw Alan's look of surprise. I'm losing my identity, she thought, turning into a producer.
"If Jean left this morning, who got my lunch from the carryout?" asked Alan.
"Me." She smiled brightly, playing her martyr role to the hilt. Was it St. Eulalie whose breasts lay steaming on a platter? Well, she wasn't about to go that far. She rattled on, eager to get everything off her chest. "And Actors Equity called to say we can use only four non-professionals in Miss Jairus. So we'll have to cut back on the crowd scenes. Kromer will have another tantrum about that."
Alan clumsily put his arms around her. "What a terrible day."
"I wasn't going to dump on you like this. It's my job. To administrate. Your job is to create. And you do it brilliantly."
His sharp eyes fastened on her. "Patience, dear heart. You'll be trodding the boards again soon."
She'd have the lead in the fourth play of the season, Irma, in The Balcony. "It seems a long way off." She smiled wanly. He smiled back. Alan could read her at a glance. They were simpatico. That's why they'd always worked so well together. In San Francisco where they met. Then St. Louis, where she was his leading lady in eight shows. It was a golden time. Before she was married. Before Alan became the artistic director of the Beach Theater in L.A., a plum job, a definite upswing in his career.
"Here we are, Dunbar and Fairchild, together again in the Big Apple." Alan's eyes were bright, a transparent blue made brighter in contrast with his pupils, large and round and dark. He stuck his nose in the air, his nostrils quivered. "In the role of Irma, madam of the whore house . . ." he made a double chin and jowls ". . . Lee Fairchild delivers a mesmerizing tour de force."
Lee smiled. He was doing Win Sloat, theater critic for Channel Ten.
Alan waggled his jowls. "I particularly liked the symbolism of the ladder left onstage throughout."
"By a careless stagehand," Lee murmured.
Alan continued solemnly. "Omnipresent yet unobtrusive, stark and simple, it conveyed beautifully the essence of the main characters, where they had been and where they would have to go." He threw his head back and let loose with his laugh, loon-like, but infectious.
"And was a sly reference to the play's title, The Balcony." Laughter bubbled through her lips. She relaxed into it, let it build. "I haven't laughed like this," she gasped, "not since Richard and I got drunk on champagne the day the grant came through for us." Her laughter broke. Tears filled her eyes.
Alan fumbled through a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "Sorry." She took a deep breath.
"I miss Richard too." Alan awkwardly patted her on the arm. "How's the kid? Surviving her first week of college?"
"Better than me." She wrinkled her nose.
He gave her an impulsive hug. "Hey, I almost forgot. I have good news, for a change. Blithe Spirit is cast."
"Great!" He'd been reading people for the last three days, determined to get the right chemistry for their second show, their upbeat show for the holidays.
"And-" the shadow of a dimple quivered in his cheek "-we've got Violet Butterworth for Madame Arcati. I spoke to her agent a couple of hours ago."
"That's fantastic. She'll work for minimum? You asked, didn't you?"
"Oh, yes. Eager to get the job" He winced. "There's a rumor around that she's been having trouble remembering lines." He pulled his fingers excitedly through the sparse stubble that dotted his scalp.
"Well, she has lots of charisma and a huge following."
Alan yelped and jerked his hand off his head. "Can't endanger my fragile roots with sweaty fingers." His dimple flickered. "My vanity is costing me. Would you believe this puny lot has cost $2,500 so far?"
Lee grunted. It looked like a burnt out cornfield to her. She gave Alan a grimace meant as a smile, ruminating over Violet Butterworth's frailties. "Beggars can't be choosers. Thank God, the show is Coward, not Shakespeare. If she has to ad-lib, at least she won't have to do it in blank verse. I'll get the contract to her agent first thing Monday morning." Having a "name" like Butterworth, even with its downside, would be a real magnet for audiences.
Alan's kind eyes locked into hers. "Not to worry. I predict Miss Jairus will be a hit. And next year-" he searched for a consoling thought to offer her "-we'll have money, enough to hire a fulltime administrator so you can be a fulltime actor."
She smiled. "Who says we can't dream?" It had been a wonderful bit of luck running into Alan again three years ago at that open call. He'd cast her in his show, which had a modest run off-Broadway. And they'd put together the package for the Collyer Foundation. She'd lost track of him after he left the Beach Theater. But it was as if they'd just parted yesterday, that 15 years hadn't gone by.
Alan was still a handsome man, a bit blurred around the edges but that gave him an air of kindness that was missing when he was younger.
She felt very blurred herself tonight. It had been a long day. It would be even longer by the time she finished the work piled on her desk upstairs.
"Bye, love." Alan pulled open the door to the street. Something soft and heavy toppled in, nearly hitting her legs. She looked down at the still heap of rags. It was a man, wrapped in several layers of blankets, a hole cut in the center for the head. The smell of sweat, urine and mildew made her eyes water.
Alan bent over the shape, who groaned something that sounded like "malc" or "milk." The man stumbled to his feet and leaned against the doorjamb, blocking their way. He chugged from a pint bottle. He was tall, with a dark beard, bushy hair, matted now.
Lee remembered seeing him around the neighborhood, talking to himself, asking for money. She'd seen sores on his bare ankles. Once he'd gotten into the theater-people didn't always lock the door behind them-and disturbed one of Kromer's rehearsals.
His eyes, bloodshot, darted from her to Alan. Then he mumbled to himself, retreating down the front steps. He headed left, toward the abandoned buildings by the river. All at once, he stopped and looked back at them. "Malc," he shouted, "Maaalc."
Alan's face was drawn and sad. "I'll buy him coffee," he said suddenly to Lee. He ran to catch up.
"Be careful," Lee called. Street people were unpredictable, docile one moment, violent the next. Alan had been the one to coax him out of Kromer's rehearsal by offering him money.
The man was waiting for Alan to join him. Almost tenderly he held out an arm and allowed himself to be led toward the corner coffee shop. Alan disappeared inside. The man, a tent-like figure, waited motionless under the outside canopy.
Lee hesitated, then closed the theater door and bolted it. Alan knew how to handle him.
She was shivering, she realized, as she trudged up the stairs to her office on the second floor. The building was a barn of a place, expensive to heat, but rent was a pittance. It had been a burlesque house, vacant for years.
When she first saw the space, newspapers, bottles, beer cans, ragged bits of clothing were strewn over the floors helter-skelter, trapped in layers of filth. The Homeless Hotel, Alan called it. As she and the others cleaned and scrubbed, chaos and despair seemed to rise up with the dust, settle over her in a fine mist.
One end of the third floor, where the costume alcove was now, had been especially bad, filled with feathers and small bones. Images of Satanic rites, the biting off of pigeons' heads, the drinking of blood ran through her mind. Then she'd reined in her galloping imagination and decided that the dozens of transient inhabitants of the building, hungry and without money, had grabbed a meal where they could.
At the second floor landing, she opened the door, fumbled along the wall, found the switch, feeling less edgy as the lights came on, illuminating the reception area, with its faded blue couch and matching chairs, the wooden desk, massive, old-fashioned and scarred, too large for the corner it sat in. Reassuring solidity in an ephemeral world.
She went down the hall to her office. She flicked on the light switch, sat down at her desk, opened the budget folder for the umpteenth time. Costs had doubled since she and Alan had submitted their grant proposal to the Collyer Foundation.
She poked at her calculator. What else could she cut? Five shows to be done between now and May. Then all five would be repeated in repertory during the summer. A monumental task.
What about next year? The neighborhood was being gentrified. Property values could go sky high. So could their rent.
In the corner the donated copier hummed and gurgled, slurping up toner at $5 a bottle.
Anyway, they'd lucked out on theater seats and drop curtains, had gotten a terrific deal, thanks to Richard. She stumbled over his name. She tried to force her mind past Richard, willed herself to concentrate on the numbers. But her eyes were pulled to the photo on the desk, as they were a hundred times a day. She stared at the three of them, Richard, Heather, and her, tanned and laughing, hair blown by the wind, white sails, blue sky and water. Richard's captain's cap was tilted back. He seemed about to burst with pride and joy. Heather, leggy in her cut-off jeans, looked 12 instead of 16. She had an arm around each of them. The perfect family. Only two years ago. It seemed like yesterday. Or light years ago. The picture blurred and wavered.
She tore her eyes away. Stacks of papers, piled up on the desk, the floor, the corner chair, surrounded her. Maybe it was too soon to get involved in all this. She'd be wearing two hats. Administrator, for the first time in her life. And actress, after a gap of two years. It could break her in two.
He pushed his hand inside his jacket and drew out the trembling body. He untied the feet, then unwrapped the cord that bound its wings. It made small noises, whimpering sounds. "Shhh, my friend," he whispered. "She'll hear us." The beady eyes glittered as if it understood but suddenly its wings flapped and it dug its claws into his hand. He clamped both hands over the wings, holding them down. The bird twisted, struggling to get away. He held it tighter, feeling the bones beneath his fingers. He squeezed until the bird stopped moving.
He stood very still, trying to quiet his breathing. He heard her call, "Alan." He looked for a place to hide, saw the rack of costumes, and pushed into the middle of them, breathing in the dust, trying not to sneeze. Sweat rolled off his face, down his neck into his shirt collar. He wouldn't panic this time. Do something dumb.
Lee turned off the copier. "Alan, are you back?" She looked out her office door, to her left, down the hall toward reception. Empty. To her right, the rehearsal room door was open. She walked down the hall and peered in. Over to the right against the wall, what was that? She turned on the light. Only a clump of costumes on the rack along the wall, brought down from upstairs storage. The building, full of sighs and groans, had a life of its own.
Something silver glinted on the floor. She bent to pick it up. A feather. Weird-she'd just been thinking of feathers.
She threw it in the trashcan just inside the rehearsal room. It could have been tracked in by anyone. Hordes of actors had been by today for Alan's auditions.
Back in her office, she pawed through the budget pages scattered across her desk. She couldn't concentrate. She realized she was still listening for whatever it was she thought she'd heard. She got up, grabbed her coat from the back of the door.
Her eyes fell on the brochures stacked around the office, on the floor, on the extra chair. The second mailing announcing their season should have gone out days ago. Now with Jean gone . . . She flipped through her rolodex, dialed the 24-hour temp service and put in her order for someone for tomorrow. Then she gathered up her things and locked her office door.
Outside, a cold drizzle was falling. She hurried past the dance studio, rounded the corner, and headed toward the parking lot at the back of the building, where she kept her car. When she unlocked the gate, she noticed the third floor, the floor above her office, where the scenery was constructed and stored, was blazing with lights. The crew must have left without turning them off. There went the electric bill. She should go back inside, climb up to three, and douse the lights. She didn't want to. She told herself it was because she was tired.
The image of that first day, the feathers and bones scattered in the corner of the third floor, slid again into her mind. She saw a manic dance, a voodoo ritual, a horror show out of Stephen King. She gave her head a sharp shake. When she wasn't acting, her imagination sometimes went a little haywire. A build-up of fantasy juice.
A figure moved into the third floor window. Good. The crew must still be working. She wouldn't have to unlock the doors and climb all those steps. Lee tooted the horn. The figure waved. Was it Harry? He was boss of the crew as well as stage manager.
She backed the Toyota out onto the street, relocked the fence and climbed back into her car. When she glanced up at the window again, it was dark. Whoever it was must have decided to call it a night.
Overripe, that's what Richard always said about her imagination. They'd had more than a few fights about it-how she couldn't take anything at face value, was always reading into things more than was there, making them more dramatic. "I'm sorry," he'd say gently afterwards. "I'm glad you make me see things differently. I could never live without you." "Me, too," she'd say.
It wasn't the third floor of the theater that spooked her. Nor the job, administrator of a low budget off-Broadway repertory company. It was Richard-she was scared of going on without him. Tears came to her eyes. She rubbed them away with the palm of her hand. She started the car, ground the gears. The car lurched forward.
Life could be such a kick in the face. It was always changing. Not like theater, where you had a script and you rehearsed it until you got it right.
He stood by the window, between the bolt of muslin and the lumber, and watched her drive away. He was smarter than anyone. He was a shadow, an invisible man.
He lit a candle. Around him, the other shadows moved, broke apart, re-formed into different shapes and sizes.
They surged forward the-the shadow people. The skull was first, grinning and humming its high-pitched song. The angel with horns paired off with the madman, tarred and feathered.
They all belonged to him. "Everything allowed 'till midnight," he whispered.
He turned, surprised to see the hunchback, arms outstretched, weaving toward him. "You're just in time," he said.