Mr. Chatterbox

By staff January 1, 2006

This is Howard Millman's last season at the Asolo, and I for one am devastated. I'm sure that new guy will be fine, but under Howard's tutelage I felt the Asolo was my theater. I always made it a point after seeing a show to send him my "notes"-a theatrical term for criticisms or pointing out little mistakes, like diction or "bits of business" for which actors should be fired immediately. And don't think he hasn't been grateful. When I came to see a rehearsal of the opening show this season (Laughing Stock) he grabbed his chest as if experiencing a heart attack and playfully ordered me out of the theater. I guess for once he wanted a show that he could truly say I had nothing to do with.

Fortunately, what Howard doesn't know is that you can sneak in the side door using a credit card or putty knife and tiptoe down the hall and through the scene shop, then crawl up through the air-conditioning ducts to the rear stairwell, where you drop to the floor and can hide in the back of the darkened theater and watch the proceedings without anyone knowing. This I did during the first "tech" rehearsal, and I must say, what I saw was truly worrisome.

Actors were flubbing their lines, forgetting their props. The scenery was falling down. David Breitbarth, usually a fine thespian, was being pompous and self-important. That slightly older actor whose name I can't remember (David Howard!) couldn't remember the names of the other characters. One of the highly vaunted apprentices kept entering at the wrong time, carrying a tea set. Carolyn Michel, usually so professional, was drinking on stage. Uh oh, I thought, this thing has disaster written all over it. And it was supposed to open in three days' time?

Howard took over the Asolo back in 1995. It had been faltering for several years, having abandoned its mostly repertory concept, and was in that phase when it was producing a series of big-budget premieres. Megs Booker was in charge. She was a lovely person and a big fan of mine, but still-that show about the circus pretty much defined the old theatrical term "dud." Svengali was much more interesting, with darling Linda Eder as Trilby, the nude model famous for her pretty feet and her boater hats. I always thought the problem with the show was that she never sang during a modeling session but would slip on pantaloons and an "all-in-one" before delivering her ballads.

As good as Linda was, Svengali never quite gelled. One hundred years ago it was a sensation, the biggest best seller of its day and the progenitor of countless dramatic adaptations: Svengali, Son of Svengali and Svengali on Ice. Now it's all but forgotten, and the Asolo production showed us why.

At any rate, none of us wanted a repeat of that. And judging from the mess I was witnessing on stage, I was really worried. And Howard and the director (Charles Morey, who also wrote the play) were just standing there, not trying to "fix" anything. I was pulling my hair out.

After a worrisome three days (should I take Howard aside and level with him? Should I keep my big mouth shut?), opening night dawned. And even though I have dear friends in the production, I carefully refrained from sending my usual "good-luck" telegrams.

Howard was in the lobby when I arrived, glad-handing the crowd like he didn't have a care in the world. (This is known in drama as "hubris.") He was dressed in a red jacket and black shirt and tie, looking jaunty and far younger than his actual years, which according to my calculations are the early 70s. That very afternoon his name had come up here at the office. It seems that we are now publishing the Asolo program book, and the boss had told me that when Howard saw the very first copy that afternoon he had actually wept. So when our paths crossed I mentioned this. "Yeah, I cried, all right," he said with a grim look of joy on his face.

It seemed everybody in town was there. Many were chatting with their friends, while those without friends read our program book. I spied Virginia Toulmin, Bruce Rodgers, Lisa Rubinstein, Elaine Keating, Flori Roberts, Patricia and Chris Caswell (with daughter Shanley in tow; she is appearing in To Kill a Mockingbird). Also, sitting quietly by himself with a yellow legal pad in hand and a stern expression on his face, as if to say, "Make me laugh, I dare you," was Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman. Yikes, I thought. He's going to crucify this thing.

The house lights dimmed. Howard came out and made a little speech. The modern theater faces many problems these days, but apparently the biggest is cell phones. After this issue was settled, Howard went on to say that after watching the last dress rehearsal of Laughing Stock he had become a little "verklempt" and shed a tear or two. I'll bet. Between that and the program book he must have been crying all day.

The play began. It seemed to be taking place in a summer theater in New England. They were doing several plays in repertory, just like the Asolo, and things kept going wrong. Oh, I get it. It slowly dawned on me. The actors were supposed to flub their lines. They were supposed to forget their props. The worse things got, the funnier things became, and wave after wave of laughter swept over the audience until they were inundated in a perfect storm of hysteria.

Laughing Stock turned out to be my favorite Asolo play since The Mystery of Irma Vep. It captures every aspect of the theater so knowingly that the fact that it's hilarious is almost irrelevant. Because it's so true. Actors really are like that, with such-and I mean this in a loving way-warped personalities, and the Asolo company skewers them to perfection. It's hard to know who is funnier-David Breitbarth as the egomanical but sexy jerk, or Doug Jones as the embittered never-was, or David Howard as the old-timer with memory problems. Although I must say it was Sharon Spelman, in one of the smaller parts, who got the biggest laugh-and just from a facial expression.

It is the tradition of this fictional theater to sing Auld Lang Syne on closing night, and that's what they do at the end of Laughing Stock. It's an overpoweringly sentimental moment, and from the sobs I heard behind me, I knew it had gotten Howard once again. Actually, it had gotten the entire audience. Many opening nights end with the producer in tears. But the audience-that's the greatest accomplishment of all.

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