Ships that Come In
When the New York Times review for Billy & Ray appeared in last week's paper, my heart sank. I had to wipe away a tear. That's how close to home its discouraging words cut towards my good friend's life's work. But let's be real. Those words might as well have been directed at me. Haven't I spent every day for the past (how many???) years, putting it out there, in books, in film, in TV, awaiting that hallowed moment of glory when the world weighs in? I wondered how playwrite Mike Bencivenga could go on. So I did what I had to do. I went to the box office of the Vineyard Theatre and bought my ticket to survey the damage.
Mike is married to my childhood friend, Jenny, with whom I used to play jacks with on the 2nd grade playground of the Concord Road Elementary School in Ardsley, NY. Mike and I bonded instantly. He was into plays and I into fiction, so we weren't even competing for the same prize. He was easy to like, with a day job as a news editor and a big effusive personality. Mike was the guy you wanted to hang with at the bar with and trade war stories. He had a singlemindedness of mission and a complete lack of doubt -- or at least it never showed in the countless years of struggle and heartbreak.
I planned to fly under the radar for what I anticipated to be a train wreck of an evening. The reviews weren't a week old. I was surprised and apprehensive when it turned out both Mike and Jenny were in attendance for the evening's performance. I naively assumed Jenny would be anywhere but here, and Mike would be home nursing a bottle of Jameson's with his beloved cat. The lights went dark. I hunkered down. Cut to:
Applause. Loud and sustained. Many stood in the sold-out theatre as the cast took its curtain call. In the ensuing talkback, everyone stayed. The questions were intelligent and provocative. This audience was engaged. The playwrite and actors responded with relief, laughter and clever repartee. Maybe they hadn't read the reviews. Uhh-huh. Sure.
The Q & A went on until the producer had to bring it to a close. The stars vanished stage right. The theatre went dark. Mike, Jenny, myself and a group of his friends went next door for drinks. Jenny, who might as well been co-producer she did so much to shepherd this work to life, recounted every humorous miscue and gaffe from the past 4 weeks of shows. Mike unwound, content I sensed, with a good evening of theatre. A clever and meaningful story that never would have existed but for his vivid imagination and dogged perseverance.
The clock passed midnight. We finished our drinks and settled up. We hugged on the sidewalk. Mike and Jenny jumped in a cab. Billy & Ray would go up again the next night. Mike would be in the booth, watching again for the 4,000th time since his brilliant seed of an idea became a reality. But first he had to get some sleep, because he had to be at his day job at 8 in the morning. Just like the rest of us.