Three Ways Home
Doug types too much...
March 30, 2022
I met Sean Penn once in 1988, albeit accidentally. It was during the period when he was plastered all over the tabloids going through his divorce from Madonna. The run-in occurred at the Los Angeles Theater Center.
LATC was a unique set-up. Picture going to a multi-plex, only featuring plays and not movies. If I remember the history right, the 8-story building used to be an old school bank like the mammoth structures from back in the day. The cavernous architecture reminded me of the main hall of Penn Station in New York City, only smaller. When you walked in, they had a large bar and seating area on the left and there were entrances to the right (some on the ground level, some accessible by going up the grand staircase), that led to individual sound-proofed theaters – each of them probably seated a couple of hundred people. Intimate. On performance nights, they ran 4 – 5 new and adventurous plays simultaneously. Many of the plays featured well-known movie and TV celebrities who did theater 1) because they liked to, and 2) because being on stage gave them a certain street cred among their peers.
Judy and I were season ticket holders, so we saw a lot of interesting shows there. One of them was Casey Kurtti’s play Three Ways Home, directed by her husband Chris Silva. It’s the story of a white social worker assigned to a black single mother struggling with her troubled teen. Deirdre O’Connell played Sharon the social worker. Vonetta McGee starred as Dawn the mother. The character of her son Frankie was played by Glenn Plummer. There were only 3 characters in the play and every one of them had opportunities during the performance to chew up scenery and spit pieces out. While rife with humor, the dramatic effect at the end came down like a sledgehammer.
The night we attended, Sean Penn was starring in the movie Colors which was out in theaters at the time. Glenn Plummer was featured in a supporting role. Apparently, Sean showed up to support his fellow actor Glenn so that means Mr. Penn was actually in the same audience we were.
A week prior, we’d seen Sean and Danny Aiello in Hurlyburly at the Westwood Playhouse. The show was directed by David Rabe who was also the writer. The play is long, but expert. I saw the movie version years later and felt the play was much better.
I called for reservations the day I saw the advert in the LA Times and booked 2 tickets months in advance. When I asked the ticket guy on the phone where we’d be sitting, he wouldn’t reveal anything except, “You got some really good seats.” He was right about that. Front row center.
Leading up to the night of the performance, it had been in the papers that Sean was starting to be a no-show on a regular basis. In fact, they’d had to use an understudy a couple of nights the week before we went. So when we arrived at the theater, we kind of half-suspected we might open our programs to find a sheet announcing the part normally played by Mr. Penn was going to be played by somebody else that night. But luck was on our side. Sean showed up and delivered the goods. As did the entire cast.
If you think Sean Penn is intense on screen, seeing him up close in person dwarfs that experience. Sort of like when I saw Richard Dreyfuss in Mark Medoff’s The Hands of Its Enemy – I swear Richard had a visible aura of energy around him. He radiated. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Well, the cast of Hurlyburly fit into that caliber of live performance.
There was one scene in particular that Judy and I will never forget. Sean Penn and Danny Aiello sat in chairs that had been placed at the center of the stage on the very edge in front of us. It was a particularly charged scene – the both of them super high on cocaine and booze, each sweating profusely a mere 4 feet in front of us. As they acted their asses off, sweat flew off their bodies onto us. Yeah. It was that close. I’ve seen some pretty intense theater in my time, but that night was amazing in every sense of the word.
During the intermission for Three Ways Home, Judy and I went out to the bar area. It was wall-to-wall theater-goers, shoulder-to-shoulder. Judy managed to take command of a 2-person café table while I angled around folks trying to order a couple of drinks at the bar. As I walked back precariously with our libations, people unintentionally jostled me about – it was all I could do to not spill anything. I got to the edge of our table where Judy sat facing me, but I couldn’t sit down right away because there were people blocking me. That’s when I saw Judy give me a nod that said “Look who you’re standing next to.”
I turned ever so slightly and I was facing Sean Penn dressed up in a long dark overcoat. We were less than a foot from each other, staring into each other’s eyes. Without missing a beat, I bent over and set our drinks on the table. I stood back up straight and said, “My wife and I saw you in Hurlyburly last week. That was a wonderful play and you were terrific in it.”
He grinned slyly and stuck out his hand and we shook and he said, “Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
That was the first time I witnessed the downside to being a famous celebrity. The moment he spoke, heads turned all around us. Within seconds people closed circle on him and he disappeared into the crowd.
5 years later, Judy and I produced Three Ways Home as the second entry in our 1993 season of Combat Theater in sleepy Rome, New York. We started CT because none of the other community theaters in town had evolved past doing The Odd Couple and The Sound of Music. Not that there’s anything wrong with those shows, but doing something new and a little bit bold was beyond them. So we thought we’d just do it ourselves. After our first year of renting rooms and lugging rented sound and lighting equipment through snow drifts, the Rome Art & Community Center approached us about sponsoring our productions. We could do anything we wanted and they were willing to pick up the tab for play royalties and production expenses. Through generous grants provided by General Dynamics, we were able to purchase lighting and sound equipment that was gifted to the center. Any money we made at the door was split between us and them. We did that for 5 years altogether and it was a pretty sweet gig. The center made some easy cash and we would take our half and put it toward prop and costume purchases. We were our own self-licking ice cream cone with all profits parlayed into furthering the arts.
Our opening play for that 1993 season was Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. It was a show we’d seen while visiting a theater out of town. At the end, Judy and I were both blown away and we turned to each other and said, “Combat Theater’s going to do that show.”
If you’re not familiar with Rome, New York, with the exception of the now-defunct military base that was there, you might think there weren’t any people of color walking around. Let’s put it this way – in all my walks through the city, I usually only saw white folk. So it was no surprise when we announced we were staging Colored Girls that I was approached by an older white guy who ran a well-established theater group famous for doing shows like The Odd Couple and The Sound of Music. Over lunch, he asked, “Why are you bothering? There’s no audience for that in this town. Nobody’s going to show up.” Sometimes when you tell me I can’t do something, I get determined. I’ll show you, thought Dougie.
Casting a play featuring a half-dozen black females in a lily-white town was difficult. I ain’t gonna lie. We put out publicity for auditions and as I recall, only one person showed up and it was a guy named James Sutton. I told him there were no guy parts. He offered to help anyway. I told him I needed to meet some black women. James did some legwork and got a couple for me.
Neither one had ever been on a stage in their life. But they were interested and in CT world, that was enough to get you through the door. My experience has shown me that very often untrained people are the most trainable. They don’t walk in the door with years of bad stage habits under their hats. This is especially true for community theater actors. Man, I can’t tell you how many bad actors I’ve auditioned that showed up with a resume boasting 20 – 30 years of shows they’d been in, just convinced they were the best thing since sliced bread and then they turned out awful.
The women I’d roped in brought a few others along, also neophytes. The final actor we got approached me as I recall. Hey, she had some stage credentials and she auditioned beautifully. I gave her the most dramatic part because I thought she could be an anchor for the others. As it turned out, she was a headache. A diva. The others? At every rehearsal they were spinning straw into gold.
About a week before opening, the diva stopped showing up at rehearsals. Not cool. Not cool at all. And naturally, not having the full cast available for that final week of practice was freaking the newbies out. Nevertheless we persevered. About 2 nights before opening, Judy and I sat down trying to decide if we should cancel the show or not. Our consensus was no. We spent an evening trying to figure out how to slice up the pie and do the show without the diva and considered Judy standing up and reading straight from the book as a substitute. That would make the show more like For Colored Girls and One White Chick Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Diva is Enuf.
On the night of our final dress rehearsal, the diva sauntered in wearing dark Hollywood sunglasses like nothing had happened. She was ready to rehearse. I was in the kitchen at the Art Center talking with 2 of the actresses when she waltzed in. Unfortunately, she had no idea that Doug was loaded for bear. At that point, I didn’t care if she was in the show or not.
I lit into the diva. No holds barred. It was such an intense unloading on my part that the other actresses present slunk out of the room trying to get out the door without being burned by the lasers I was tossing diva’s way. Diva wasn’t sure why I was so upset. Hey, she’d showed up, hadn’t she? I believe she stopped making excuses for herself when I told her to “take the fucking sunglasses off and look me in the eyes.” I told her how we were going to cut her from the show and then she began pleading. I have no idea what stream of pissed off consciousness came out of my firehole, but I clearly made my innermost thoughts known. I’ve never spoken to an actor like that before or since. I didn’t feel guilty at all. She had it coming. I ended with allowing her to join the dress rehearsal despite my reservations with the caveat that if she fucked up ANYTHING, she was out.
Sometimes you gotta play tough. Diva was brilliant. Better than she’d ever been. And so were her costars. Turned out to be an electric show all around and our audiences were knocked out. Oh, did I mention the audiences we had every night? Sold out. Every performance sold out.
On opening night, an elder black patron approached me after the show and actually got a little testy with me. “Why are you doing this show?!” she demanded.
I didn’t hesitate. “Because it’s a great show and no one else was doing it.”
A woman behind her pushed ahead and thanked us. “We’ve been waiting for something like this to hit this town!”
The only ripple with the show came on the Monday after our opening weekend. We only charged five bucks to get in, still the cash box was jammed full when we turned it over to center personnel at the end of the performance on Saturday night.
On Monday, I got a call from one of the center staff. “Hey, I thought you guys sold out over the weekend.”
“We did,” I replied.
“Oh. ‘Cause I just opened the box and there’s only sixty dollars inside.”
The staffer continued. “Maybe our boss needed car fare or something.”
If you’re going to steal from us, try not to be obvious about it. I remember coming straight from an ATM once where I’d taken out $100 in 20s. I set the money down and when I came back, there was only $40. Be smart about stealing. If you took one twenty, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. I would have picked up the bills from where I’d set them down and just stuffed them in my pocket. But when you take three of the five bills, that’s an easy catch.
I met with the center director and shared my WTF mantra with him. He assured me he hadn’t needed any car fare. He was willing to blow it off. And my gut has always told me it wasn’t him. He had no reason to take the cash.
But somebody did. And he didn’t have a huge staff, so it wouldn’t take too long to poll his underlings. Still, he was reluctant to pursue. He didn’t want to accuse anyone of something he couldn’t prove.
The ginger-tempered part of me remembers getting a little fiery with my pushback. “Okay, man,” I said to the center director, “if I was running this place and someone took money, I would want to find out who did that. Besides, half of that take was your cut for the center. Why doesn’t that bother you?”
All I got in return for my bad temper was a shrug.
Fine. We learned a lesson that day. Never, ever would we let the cash box out of our sight again until it was opened and counted in front of everyone concerned. For the rest of the run, I personally handled the admissions. I had an old friend once who imparted the following wisdom: “The financial lessons in life are the cheap ones. It’s the emotional lessons that cost you.”
Our very next production was Three Ways Home. The guy who took me out to lunch and told me we’d never find an audience kept his mouth shut on that one.
We didn’t hold auditions. I hand-picked the cast. I wanted Judy to play the white social worker. I knew she’d be brilliant in it and she was.
For the black mom, I asked one of the women from Colored Girls if she would do it. Her name was Nina Hargrave. She’d gained a bunch of confidence from Colored Girls, but the part of the mom was quite a large chunk to bite off. But she trusted me and she turned out to be brilliant as well.
However, I was stuck for a black teenager. I gave the script to James Sutton and asked him to find me an actor. He went home and read the script, then called me. “I want to do this part.”
“Dude, you can’t. You’re in your 30s. You’ve got a moustache. Not gonna work.”
James shared a trait with me. Just like the stubborn streak I carry around, turns out he had one too. Don’t tell James he can’t do something.
He asked to come over to my house and audition. I agreed. Reluctantly.
When he showed up in my living room a week later, he’d shaved his moustache off. He put the script down on my coffee table and when I offered it back to him to read from, he gestured he didn’t need it. “I already learned it all.”
“I’ve already memorized the play.”
“What do you mean – how much of it?”
“All of it.”
In theater rehearsals, you don’t normally see actors go off-book for weeks, and certainly not at auditions. And even when they make it off book, they do it sections at a time, not the whole freaking book.
I sat back on my couch with him standing 4 feet in front of me. “Whenever you’re ready, James.”
Oh, he was ready. He killed. He was Frankie. Transformed into an angst-ridden teenager right before my eyes.
About a week later, we started rehearsing – all 3 of them together. A Lennon-McCartney competition took hold when the 2 girls saw James was not using his script at the first rehearsal. By the second week, no one was using a script anymore and they worked like they’d been intuitively intertwined from birth.
Sometimes as a director, I dread going to rehearsals. But truth be told, once I’m on the scene, I get into the groove pretty quickly. With the 3WH cast, I couldn’t wait to have them standing in front of me. They were a treasure to behold each and every time. They were really tight and we all knew it.
Without revealing too much, there is a dramatic moment that comes late in the play when the single mom is told her wayward teenaged son has been prostituting himself to buy Christmas presents. In a very intense standoff, she asks her son if the rumors are true even though she doesn’t want to know the answer.
His answer is not spoken, but shown. The scene has already taken you to a place of heightened anxiety and then he simply hangs his head in shame and empties his pants pockets. Hundreds of dollars fall to the floor. In the show Judy and I saw at LATC and in every one of our CT performances, that moment caused an audible collective gasp to ripple through the audience.
Combat Theater was all close-up stuff – much of it staged as theater-in-the-round. Close enough that the people in the front row could reach out and actually touch the actors at times. I remember there was an argument among staff sponsoring us at The Rome Art & Community Center. One outspoken staffer was incredulous that we were going to use real money. No way.
“What do you mean – no way? Of course we’re going to use real money!”
“But someone will have to be responsible and make sure none of it comes up missing. We want you to use fake bills – Monopoly money.”
I remember Judy and me just looking at each other, shaking our heads. What the hell. No way were we going to not use real money and destroy the momentum of the scene as close-up patrons gut-checked themselves when they realized we were using prop money.
Real money. We’re using real money, kids.
I assured them they would not have to provide or be responsible for that prop. That I would personally go get a bunch of cash out of our bank account. My mother used to recite an old saying: “People get funny when it comes to money.” I thought it was an odd observation on the part of the staffer who objected the most. As far as Judy and I were concerned, it never crossed our minds that someone would pilfer the money. Not right in front of our eyes – that’s a little different than sneaking off with the cash box. Just didn’t make sense. Who would take it? James? An audience member sitting close to James as he emptied his pockets?
And guess what? Out of the wads of 20s and 100s James emptied out every night, none of it disappeared. And the effect of the money falling at his feet each night drew the expected response every time. Using fake cash would have instantly blown the tension in the scene. Judy and I knew that instead of talking about the play, our patrons would have left saying, “Did you notice the money wasn’t real?”
Perhaps the staffer that anonymously ripped us off was the guilty dog barking, but that doesn’t make sense. If it was the same person who stole the Colored Girls money, they would have volunteered to not only handle the prop, they would have welcomed another opportunity to rip us off again.
Hey, it was never about the damned money. Even if it had been stolen, it was only money.
The other night, I was sleepless in Stanardsville, and for some reason, my mental Rolodex chose to relive Three Ways Home. The auditions. The rehearsals. The performances. The knocked out audiences.
I wondered where James and Nina ended up after 30 years. Hopefully, wherever they are, they think back fondly on the experience. I know I do. I think Judy would say the same.
We did some groundbreaking material during the Combat Theater years and that play would probably be my number one pick if I had to rank all the shows we produced.
Judy and I have often talked out loud about the possibilities when you end up crossing to the other side. One of our fantasies is that all those questions you never got answers to in this life are provided.
But until then, may I say it was a pleasure to revisit the experience in my head.
It would also be a pleasure to find out who stole the money out of the cash box.
Like I said, the money wasn’t that big of a deal.
The rational part of me reminds me that was a cheap lesson.
Still kind of pisses me off, though.
Could you tell?