October 10, 2016

“Theory of Evolution” by Bob Mustin

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“Theory of Evolution” by Bob Mustin

“Can you believe how pissed he was?” says Lenore. She holds up a thumb and forefinger. “He came this close to telling us we’d never work in Atlanta again.”

It’s opening night, half past midnight, and Morris Champion has just closed Titans. Lenore, Alicia and I are commiserating over coffee and doughnuts in the Buckhead Diner. There’s a clatter from the kitchen, the crowd is loud and boozy, and I’m uncomfortable that we’re shouting. A finger to my lips, I nod in commiseration.

“He’ll get over it,” says Alicia, in a surly sotto voce. Her black curls are aquiver, the muscles in her prominent jaw tense. “He’ll remember refunding two weeks of advance tickets, that the Concord is sitting empty. Common sense will strike him dumb, and we’ll be on again.”

“I don’t know,” I caution. “Massa doesn’t like taking heat for his director’s sins.” The thought of Mo and his tirade has taken my gaze to the floor. I can’t go soft in front of my dramaturge and stage manager, though. Our waitress appears, asking if there’s anything else. We know what she means: Are you going to tie up this booth much longer? Determined to show resolve, I smile and ask for coffee top-offs, then glance past. The crowd’s still growing. Familiar faces join the gaggle just inside the door.

Lenore notes the horror I must be projecting and glances over her shoulder, tugs a tuft of fine, brown hair toward her mouth. “My God, it’s the Chapmans.” Her gaunt face flushes behind the wispy tress, now a mustache. “They’re talking to the Hoovers, and they’re all looking this way.”

The last thing I need tonight is a lecture from Concord’s most prominent patrons, so I become enthralled with my doughnut crumbs.

“They’re coming,” says Lenore. “My God. The Chapmans.”

“Don’t be such cowards,” says Alicia. “Look them in the eye. If they don’t have something good to say, we’ll slap ’em silly.” She turns an amused face to the approaching couple.

“Irv,” says Lenore, her green eyes bleary, “I can’t do this. Please. You’ll have to do the talking.”

So I rise, make eye contact, and force a faux smile.

The wife is a smallish, athletic type in her late thirties, her rather demure antique white evening gown filled to enticing proportions, probably thanks to a personal trainer. She offers a surprisingly aggressive grip. “Helen Taft-Chapman, and I believe you know my husband, Donald.” Her hand slips away.

“We hope opening night hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for Titans,” I begin.

Donald offers a slack hand. He’s a tall, priggish fellow of forty or so. “It was, well, quite something.”

“Then you liked it,” I encourage, despite his hand slithering away.

“Hardly,” says Helen, her soprano reaching its upper register. “It was a sham.”

“Moving,” Alicia calls out. “It was moving.” She elbows Lenore, who is chewing on the hair wisp.

Helen looks to Donald, neither able to hide their distaste.

“We found it a less than eloquent statement,” he says.

“And lacking in sensibility,” says Helen.

I try to apply balm. “We were just rehashing the show, and we’re realizing it may need a tweak or two.”

They nod, a bit too emphatically, but don’t comment.

To my detriment, I decide to renew our dialogue by explaining the obvious. “John Scopes, you see, has always been considered a pawn in a moral power play. He was caught between the emerging ethos of science and the antiquated social thinking it sought to replace. So our viewpoint—”

Helen interrupts, taking their review up another notch. “Your viewpoint showed us no artistic weight at all. Please don’t insult our intelligence.”

“Given the renewed debate over evolution and creationism,” Donald adds, eyes flicking to Helen, “the subject should have been handled with a modicum of tact. Provoking thought is one thing, but, well, we believe your portrayal was crude and without depth.”

“It wasn’t art,” Helen says. Her long, dishwater blonde hair shimmers with each shake of her head. “It was nihilism.”

“Take your pick,” says Alicia. “Lacking in sensibility or nihilistic. Can’t be both.”

Donald, taken aback by Alicia’s retort, turns with relief to his chirping cell phone, Helen again stepping into the breach. “It was posturing. Shallow. Argumentative.”

“That’s exactly the point,” says Alicia. “So was the trial. It was grandstanding, nothing but legal burlesque.”

I wave her back and resume my appeasement. “Of course, your foremost concern is Concord. We’re a bit embarrassed at having taken the audience out of their comfort zone tonight, and for that we sincerely apologize.”

“Bunk,” Alicia growls.

“And I suspect tomorrow we’ll realize we should have given it a more cerebral slant.”

“The trial was nothing but politics,” says Alicia, again rising to the attack I’ve been trying to avert. “Just like this conversation.” Her mouth twists, making a leer of her squint.

My mouth goes dry as Alicia adds to her rant. “Intellectual tolerance was at stake tonight. It was 1925 all over again.” She and Helen glower, I in a pocket of dead air between them.

“Then I’m sure you’ll be willing to show a little respect for our view,” says Helen. “It was a farce, a travesty. Titans isn’t what Concord is about. Your production was more suited to a garage in Little Five Points.”

Donald steps forward, announces, “I just got off the phone with Morris, and we’re in complete agreement with his decision. I told him if he hadn’t cancelled the show, we’d have to rethink our commitment.” The pair exchange emphatic nods, and he rises to his summation. “Thank goodness for Morris’ artistic integrity.”

I slump to a contrite bow. “Well, we can’t tell you how much we appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s just the sort of honest-to-the-bone feedback that keeps Concord vital.”

They frown and sniff, turn and join the Hoovers in a corner booth nearby. There’s too much clamor to eavesdrop, but their conversation is animated. I slide into my seat and try to flag our waitress.

“Fuck ‘em,” says Alicia, staring at the wall.

Lenore groans, stifles a sob.

Then Alicia turns and laughs. “Honest-to-the-bone feedback, Irv? I mean, really. You can be such a whore. You’d say anything to stay on with Massa.”

Now our waitress is standing before us, one foot tapping. I order a short stack and a side of ham and hand her my cup. Alicia and Lenore order more doughnuts. Chin in cupped hand, I have to ask, “All right, what are we going to do with this?”

“What do you mean what are we going to do with it?” Alicia’s anger is collapsing into indignant hurt. “Titans is a good play. A great play.” She waggles a finger. “Don’t you dare change it.”

“Of course it’s good, it moved them, we saw it in their faces. But that’s the problem, don’t you see?” I nod toward the Chapmans. “They’re too genteel for revolutionary art.”

Alicia breaks into one of her mocking happy-face smiles. “I’m so happy for them. Mo’s chased off the Huns, and their shitty little world is safe and sophisticated again.”

“I see Irv’s point, though,” says Lenore. “The fact is, Mo was our angel. Without a stage, Titans won’t move anyone.”

“Exactly.” At least Lenore understands.

Alicia huffs. “Just wait for the reviews. You’ll see.”

It’s approaching one. The early edition won’t be out for several hours. “Does anyone know Elise’s cell number?” I ask. “Maybe she’ll give us a preview.”

“She’s probably at the paper,” says Lenore. “Call her at the paper.”

“No,” says Alicia, “she writes at home. Let me see.” As she rummages through her purse, her cell phone rings. She gives up a wry smile after a few terse words and hands it to me.

Then I begin to smile, too.

“What?” says Lenore, when the conversation has ended. “Is it good news?”

“It was Philip Wainwright.”

“Really? The Philip Wainwright? Of The New York Times?”

Alicia puts the phone away and, rummaging again, says, “He was in town and caught Titans.”

“I’ll bet I know how he took it,” says Lenore. “He thought it was some sort of cheap, sophomoric satire, didn’t he?” She looks to me. “Please tell me he didn’t think that.”

“He loved it,” I tell her. “The best piece of absurdism in years.”

Lenore gapes. “You mean he’s okay with it?”

“Perfectly,” Alicia says, still rummaging.

“All right.” Lenore is suddenly ebullient. “Okay. Do we take it to New York? I heard you ask about New York.”

My attention falls to my refilled mug. “He says every theater there is having a banner year, so no, New York doesn’t need material from the provinces.” Despite Wainwright’s call, the weight of this is getting me down. I toss down half my coffee. There’s a solution for Titans, if it’ll just show itself.

Alicia opens an address book onto the booth table, fingers a couple of tiny pages, presses in Elise’s number, and hands me the phone.

We exchange the usual pleasantries, then get to the matter at hand. Lenore stares as she listens to this one-sided conversation. I must be a wash of emotions.

“Oh, God,” she says, watching the folded phone return to Alicia. “She’s going to pan us, isn’t she? She’s going to wipe up the floor with us.”

“No, no, not at all.” I pat her hand. “She was bursting with adjectives. You know the way she uses participles. Daring. Challenging. Provoking.”

“Bull,” says Alicia. She pounds the table. Nearby customers turn to glare. “She’s not going to make our case. Stupid bitch.”

A young, dark-skinned woman, who is either mute or doesn’t speak English, brings our pancakes and ham and doughnuts. We dive in.

“She’ll have to mention the closing,” I explain, “but she’s going to bury it, near the end. She’s going to say, with the developmental state of drama here, Mo is probably right in withdrawing support. But he’s doing it for all the wrong reasons.”

“It’s going to be a whitewash job,” says Alicia. “She really didn’t like it, so she’s going to say all sorts of ambiguous things. She’ll kill us.”

“No, she’s with us, but she can only say so much. Her editor plays golf with Mo.”

“Oh, really?” says Alicia, her eyebrows rising, mouth pursed.

“She’ll have some very positive commentary, though. Our morphing of Darrow into a caveman with a club and Bryan into a dinosaur and then having them fight it out while our narrator read a synopsis of the trial transcript was awe-inspiring. And she liked the lights going out just before the jury announced the verdict. The symbolism struck her as daunting but, ultimately, invigorating.”

“All right, then,” says Alicia, “how about the final scene? That’s critical. How did she feel about that?”

The Chapmans and Hoovers prepare to leave, and they’re looking in our direction. Now the Hoovers are making their way through the tables.

I rise, search for some eloquent nicety to hide behind, find nothing. So, hand out, I’m reduced to one more inane smile.

Mrs. Hoover takes my hand in both of hers. “Dear boy, you are a gift to the arts.”

My jaw drops at this unexpected praise. “Then you liked it?”

“Well, you did take us to the edge of our sensibilities, but thank you for not pushing us over.”

Suddenly, I remember why I’ve always liked this plump, affable pair.

The husband gives us a non-threatening shrug. “I thought the actors were a bit over the top, but then it was opening night.”

Nervous, eager to find common ground, I stammer, “Tom Starr, our Darrow, he’s never done impressionistic drama before. Patrick Avis hasn’t either, but I thought his Bryan—“

She interrupts, changing the subject. “Perhaps you don’t know my lineage.” A knowing chuckle follows.

Some vague memory tries to free itself, but I give up on it. A Hispanic man, barely five feet tall, approaches and begins clearing our table. A smaller venue, out of Mo’s orbit, maybe that’s the ticket. The Hoovers our new angels. But some cautionary emotion lingers.

“I come from a long line of educators,” she says. “One was a teacher from Dayton, Tennessee.”

My face heats. “Oh, no. You’re related to John Scopes?”

“An older, distant cousin. A simple biology teacher.”

“Well, I do hope you think he’d have approved.”

“He described it as a war of titans. The way you envisioned it, more or less.”

“We were there,” he adds. “We attended the trial with our parents.”

Lenore’s paying our tab, Alicia at my shoulder. “All right,” she says, “let me ask you this. What did you think of our denouement?” A rare eagerness illuminates her.

Mr. Hoover’s smile slips a little, into the beginnings of protective reserve. “The people walking by, reading the paper, talking, and playing those big jam boxes with Darrow and Bryan in their death throes? And Scopes hanging from a gallows behind them? Well, we were uncomfortable there, I’m afraid.”

The crowd has thinned. Mr. Hoover’s voice is echoing, and I’d rather not see heads turning.

“We would have liked a more inspirational tack,” he continues. “Certainly the country turned a corner because of the Scopes trial. It renewed education, even freedom of speech. The American people are the better for it.”

“That’s so revisionist,” says Alicia. “It never happened that way. Not even close.”

“Here,” says the wife. She reaches into her purse, extracts a card, hands it to me. “He’s the son of a friend of ours, just getting started, in Flagstaff. And he’s on the lookout for good, thoughtful plays.”

The husband takes my hand, grips it warmly. “Cheer up, Irv. Tonight’s turn of events may be just the thing. You all have talent, that’s obvious. There’s no denying Titans is a powerful piece, and I mean that in the best way. It just needs taming, that’s all.”

They turn and make their way to the door. I crumple the card and toss it on the table.

“Yes,” Alicia hisses. “Now let’s get a lawyer and sue the shit out of Mo.”

“No, no, that would never fly.”

“Coward.”

At last something is gelling, and I have to share it. “Listen, there’s such good chemistry between the three of us. Lenore, you write well. Alicia, you’re one of the best with a set I’ve ever seen. I know how to manage actors, and I have some savings to invest. You know, Helen Chapman may have had the right idea about Little Five Points.”

The whole thing takes shape in a moment between the three of us, spawned more from necessity than ego or hurt feelings. It’s well past one as we exit, in animated conversation about our new production company, born this night in the Buckhead Diner, from the ashes of Titans.

* * *

Bob Mustin has been a North Carolina Writers Network Writer-in-Residence under Doris Betts’ guiding hand. I the early 1990s, he was editor of a small literary journal, “The Rural Sophisticate,” based in Georgia. His work has appeared in both print and digital publications. His sixth work of fiction, Collateral Damage and Other Stories, was published in 2016.

 

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