Lauren Frost was to play Louise Farmer onstage. But Lauren was not Louise. Or was she? The parallels between their evolving lives were enough to make those in the Clark Theater Group wonder. But both lead actress Lauren and playwright Peter Henry denied the speculation.
At 30, Lauren Frost was tiring of staid Shakespearian roles cautious, Bard-worshiping director Morris Blake had thrust upon her. She was seeking a role that took more chances, something new and edgy.
Peter Henry was the 24-year-old enfant terrible of the local literary scene. His breakthrough production "So That's What They're Calling It", had thrilled some critics while infuriating others. But what was not to love about a play that merged baroque dialogue with modern sensibilities, not to mention bits of gothic horror, gallows humor, necrophilia, and one particularly gory scene of cosmic retribution.
He financed the production himself, using friends from college as cast and crew. The profits made by this bare-bones production convinced the Clark Theater Group Board of Directors to commission a new play from Henry.
Lauren saw that first play. She sat through one performance engrossed, trying to put herself into every character in every scene. During the controversial "Crypt" scene she could imagine the actress, hastily made up as a corpse, being violated by the evil Count Bertram; a role played by the author himself. And she felt his horror at the Guillotine scene, where a well-made prop head fell into the basket. True, everything was stagecraft, but emotions Lauren felt seemed very real, very exciting.
Lauren was overjoyed when the new play was announced. She met with Peter Henry that afternoon at a restaurant across the street from the Clark Theater.
Peter was a far cry from the evil troll some critics saw him as being. At twenty four, his hair was already graying. It was styled in what Lauren saw as a short female style, swept to the right, with the top halves of his ears covered. He was trim, not terribly tall, a few inches shorter than her own 5-foot-10. The words "Feminine, yet..." came to mind.
Their attire was similar, jeans and thick pullover sweaters, befitting the just above freezing temperatures. Peter wore a denim jacket while Lauren braved the two-minute second jog from the theater to the restaurant without one.
"I did a tour of the theater," Peter Henry said, his chef's salad largely untouched. "Fine old vaudeville venue nicely restored."
Lauren was already half finished with the second diagonally-cut half of her BLT. "Yes," she said, after a sip of diet cola, "I was in college during the renovation. The first time I stepped on that stage, I realized that drama was my livelihood and accounting the hobby."
"That will help me a great deal," he replied. "My first play was greatly inspired by several long conversations I had with Rosa, my lead actress. It would have been a far less interesting piece without her input."
"Ask anything you want," Lauren said, enthusiastically.
"You saw a showing of 'So That's What They're Calling It'," Peter said. "What did you think of the Crypt scene?"
"I saw it as the actress there on stage. Trying to figure out what she thought of it."
Peter smiled. "Rosa likes to take long, cold baths before sex. It was only fitting that she play a cadaver in that pivotal scene."
"You and her..." Lauren began, then stopping, perhaps realizing how loaded of a question that was.
"Fuck buddies," Peter said, dismissively. He thrust his fork into his salad, and looked at the dangling chunk of tomato for a moment. "Probably something that should not have happened." He ate the tomato, hardly bothering to chew, and then continued. "A farce with a predictably maudlin ending."
"You sound bitter."
He ate a little more of the salad, contemplating the question. "The production ran four weeks. Four weeks of feigning intimacy with someone, by then, I could barely stand sharing the stage with. Mind you, I'm sure by then she felt the same of me."
"Sex seems to be a central aspect of your writing?" Lauren said, slightly nervous about the question.
"Sex is a central aspect of life," Peter said, taking on an aristocratic air that Lauren felt bore some authenticity. "Anyone who says otherwise is either a fool or not living up to their full potential."
"True," Lauren said, nervously, remembering her wilder, college days when experimentation was the rule of the day. "But it is a different matter for women. There's always the chance of a 'cute guy' turning into a monster."
Peter nodded his head, understanding Lauren's meaning.
"I've had a few close calls," Lauren continued. "I suppose most women have them. I've been a lot more careful ever since."
"Understandable," Peter said. That would have sounded patronizing coming from most men, but Peter's voice showed the empathy of someone who'd experienced a similar sort of intimidation. "But," Peter said, his authoritative tone returning, "never confuse consensual lovemaking, in whatever form, with true perversion."
Lauren nodded slowly. She was six years his elder, but felt awestruck in his presence.
"Do you have a problem with on-stage nudity?" Peter asked, modifying the subject.
"I don't know," Lauren replied, taking a moment to think. "I've never done it before."
She laughed. "My family was against my taking drama, even in middle school." Her mood swung to sadness. "None of them have ever seen any of my work. 'We can't forbid you,'" she said, bitterly, quoting her father, "'but don't expect us to burn in Hell with you.'"
"Why couldn't they forbid you?" Peter asked, suddenly playing counselor.
"They were married to the end," Lauren said, wistfully. "And it was their marriage that killed them. Serious problems existed, but they were in denial. Taking drama was a phase I was supposedly going through. Besides, it got me out of the house, where I couldn't see the realities, the hypocrisies that are inevitable under such conditions."
Peter was silent for a moment. It was an intense silence filled with unspoken ideas exploding into his consciousness. He took a small notebook out of his jacket pocket and started to write down a few notes.
"Do you have a few friends at the theater you would trust with your life?" he asked, setting his pen aside.
"Yes," Lauren said, a finger jutting forward when another name came to mind.
"Some night, have them stay late," he suggested, "when everyone else is gone. Then undress and spend a good half hour or so onstage, looking out at the seats. Imagine the theater filled to capacity, and you there alone onstage."
Lauren giggled in a way she hadn't in over a dozen years; girlish, innocent. "I can do that," she said, smiling, nodding her head.
The playwright looked at his actress for a long moment. "Ideas are forming," he said, slowly but with enthusiasm. He stood up. "We will talk again. Soon. But for now, I have an appointment with my therapist." On the way out, he stopped at the register and paid for both meals.
* * *
"What's he like?" Ana, the company's former lead-actress asked her successor. At fifty, she and Lauren could still pass for sisters. But where the Lauren preferred more casual attire and softer tones, Ana loved vivid colors and clothing that made every day a performance. Today it was clingy black top, fishnet and sheer nylon combined into a single fabric. With that she wore a black satin sarong and Victorian-era lace-up boots that reached to her knees.
She never resented the younger woman's success -- even when it came at her expense. The truth is she fell in love with Lauren the moment they met. She'd been a painfully shy child, and took drama as a way of overcoming that shyness. But hints of awkwardness remained, and even as she was going through menopause, a wisp of infatuation could return her to the awkward schoolgirl of her youth.
"He's intense." Lauren replied, struggling for a moment to expand on that thought. It's pretty sure whatever role he has planned for me will call for nudity. He suggested I try getting used to it some night, here with a few trusted friends around."
Ana smiled, recalling her therapeutic masterpiece early in her career. It had been an experimental play written by a college friend requiring her to be naked through through the entire show. "I never 'got' the point to nudity until then," she admitted, "just thinking the writer was a pervert of some sort. But there, on that stage, looking at the audience, security guards just off to the side, I felt power. I could see the various emotions on the people's faces; confusion, embarrassment, lust. But also admiration, people who wished they had the guts to do what I was doing."
"But for the entire performance?" Lauren asked. "Isn't that rather like beating them over the head with the point?"
"Some people need to be beaten over the head," Ana replied, dryly. "Those who can only see nudity in a sexual light. Those who drool at the sight of a woman's breasts but are grossed out if they see a penis. There was one critic who kept telling me that I should stop degrading myself. He really needed to be beaten over the head."
"My parents wouldn't get it," Lauren said, ruefully.
"I'll know after tonight," Lauren said, smiling.
* * *
Peter called the next afternoon and asked Lauren to see him at The Colonnade, a recently-restored art-nouveau era arcade across from the Clark Theater.
"I come here for inspiration," he said, clutching the brass handrail, looking down at the lower level. I fell in love with Maxfield Parrish's work as a child. The lush landscapes, androgynous youths, a time that never really existed yet exists in our collective subconsciousness. This place seems to take me into that universe."
"For me," Lauren said, drifting off for a moment into a nostalgia, "it was Edward Hooper." She shook her head, smiling. "Back in my college days, I found this tobacco shop that could pass for one of his red-brick storefronts. As soon as I saw a vacancy, I rented one of the upstairs apartments. Lived there until well after graduation."
"Eventually couldn't take the smell?" Peter asked.
"Actually the opposite," Lauren said, playfully. "I used to fix the landlord's computer for a couple good cigars."
"Please," Peter said, with an uncharacteristically broad laugh, "I don't want any Freud in this play." He stopped for a second before changing the subject. "Do you have any suitors with the theater group?"
It took Lauren a moment to adjust to the new train of thought. "Why do you ask?"
"You need a lover, or Louise, the woman you'll be playing needs one at the start of the play."
Lauren shook her head, as she inventoried names and images, but keeping one person on the periphery of her thoughts.
"There is someone," Peter said, examining her changing expressions.
"She's never admitted to it, but Ana, an actress there, has a thing for me." Lauren realized she was blushing.
"How do you feel about it?"
"Honored," Lauren said, still blushing. "She is an excellent actress and I've learned a lot from her."
"Honor is hardly an erotic emotion," Peter scoffed, as they walked over to the broad stairway leading to the lower level. "What if I were to make her character and yours lovers?"
"Last night," Lauren said, leaning towards Peter, almost whispering, "I did what you suggested. Left my clothes in the dressing room and went onstage. It was wonderful!"
Peter smiled and nodded his head.
"It's as if you can read my mind and bring out things I've always been afraid of seeing about myself. It isn't that I want a female lover, but I'm wondering what the audience will think seeing me in another woman's arms."
"And if they think you're a lesbian?"
"When I played Lady Macbeth, there were people sure that I was that same bloodthirsty bitch offstage. Really it's a thrill for me, people seeing me as my character."
"Louise and Helene," Peter said, stating his envisioned story-line, "were lovers. Percy entered their lives and destroyed their happiness, taking Louise as his mistress."
"I see," Lauren said, sounding a little disappointed. "But how does this differ from every other love-triangle?"
"In reality," Peter said, "there are no real good guys or bad guys. Everyone follows their own set of needs. So, what are Percy's needs causing him to break up a happy couple? What are Louise's, making her betray her one true love? And what are Helene's, making her blind to Percy's designs on Louise?"
Lauren moved to the painted-green metal park bench they were passing, and sat down. "I'd wonder about my grandparents. Hearing me say I was with another woman would break their hearts. I don't know; does Louise think about having children and raising a family?"
"Do you?" Peter asked, sitting down beside her.
Lauren shook her head. "If I were on Broadway or in Hollywood, rich and successful, I might consider it, probably more as accessories; like those little dogs celebrities keep in their purses. But I spent enough time in both places to know they're not for me. I'm a fine small-city actress but not star material, nor do I want to be."
"So if it's not worldwide acclaim, what motivates you?"
Lauren smiled and put her arm around the playwright. "I want to find out what's behind all the doors my parents kept locked."
Peter took Lauren home with him that evening, stopping to pick up a pizza on the way. They ate, had sex, and Lauren fell asleep while Peter went to his home office to start writing the play in earnest.
* * *
"What do you think so far?" Peter asked, the first rehearsal of the yet-unfinished play completed.
"Ana's kisses were more passionate than were yours," Lauren complained.
"Actors only have to learn their lines and follow the stage directions," Peter said. "As writer and director as well, my mind has to be everywhere. Certainly, I am more passionate in bed."
"We haven't gotten to that scene yet," Lauren joked.
"I mean, in..." It took Peter a moment to catch on.
"If you like," Lauren said, continuing the joke, "I can sleep with Ana and be able to compare."
"No!" Peter shouted, then broke up laughing. "I don't need the competition."
"Oh, I'm no competition," Ana said, joining them. "The way she talks about you. A teacher? A mentor? A shaman? There's only so much superior sex can do."
"A shaman?" Peter asked, incredulously. "You make me sound like fucking Rasputin."
Ana shrugged her shoulders. "Lena says we're using far more sheer material this production than we ever had before. Those are your costuming notes she's following; nyet, Father Gregori?"
"Svengali, I'll accept," Peter said, mockingly. "But not Rasputin. I saw a movie about him once. His thumb was bigger than my fully-erect cock. I think I was a bit traumatized."
* * *
Peter was indeed using more and more of Lauren's fantasies in the play. After actually having sex in the backseat of his car, she admitted often preferring the backseat to a bed for sex. The next day, the carpenters were busy constructing a backseat for a newly-written scene.
He also questioned Ana about any fantasies she had about Lauren. The next day, a shower was being built, along with a long scene without either Lauren or Ana, allowing the actresses time to dry off.
But Peter was a young writer and his brilliance could not hide his inexperience. His shows of ego were mainly put-on, for he truly realized his shortcomings. Often he would spend hours slogging through dictionaries and thesauruses looking for one illusive word.
Sometimes he would unknowingly talk to himself, questioning his decisions regarding the play. He was deeply upset when he learned Rose had moved to another state. "Did I drive her to this?" he'd ask. "Am I driving Lauren away?"
For her part, Lauren avoided the office while he was going through these spells of self-doubt. Usually they would end quickly enough as he wrote a passage solving whatever problems he was facing.
He usually worked until two or three in the morning. But one night, Lauren woke up just after sunrise to an empty bed.
"What's wrong?" she asked, worriedly. Clothing had become entirely optional at home and she walked from their bedroom to Peter's home office naked.
"Two weeks before it's supposed to go on, and I can't come up with the ending," Peter groaned, looking at the computer screen. "Nothing makes sense."
"Are you sure you want to end it?" Lauren asked, looking at the last few paragraphs. "You know, a lot of people are saying this is autobiographical."
"Every bit of fiction ever written is autobiographical," Peter stated. "It's just that it's usually not the autobiography the reader thinks it is."
"So this might be your autobiography, or mine, possibly even Ana's?"
"How," Peter asked, stretching back, allowing his lover to sit in his lap, "are Percy and Peter different?"
"You've always been honest with me," Lauren replied. "Percy has that line about honesty being like a necktie that he wears when it suits him.
Peter sighed. "Rosa and I were lovers for nearly two years. True, she had the necrophilic fantasies, but they brought out a side of me that I eventually found terrifying. I started reading too much into everything we did. Eventually, every time we did that scene, I'd have to rush backstage afterwards to throw up."
"Ah, she of the gentler kinks," he said, smiling.
She laughed. "My parents would have thought everything we're doing was perverted. I don't know, though. For me, it's about exploration, learning who I am."
"According to one critic," Peter said, stroking Lauren's knee, "I'm a misogynistic homosexual."
"For making my character bi?" Lauren asked, in disbelief, still laughing." Peter had his demons, a mercurial temper that after a few minutes of shouting, always ended with a heartfelt apology. He was also one of the gentlest men Lauren had ever met. And there was no question in her mind that he liked women.
Peter shook his head. He patted the sides of Lauren's thighs and gently nugded Lauren to her feet. "I think I have an ending," Peter said, returned to the keyboard.
* * *
"Odd Man Out," opened with all three acts written and rehearsed. It ended with Louise, after nearly a year of being Percy's sex-slave, standing up, stark naked.
"Goodbye, Percy," she said, walking toward the front of the stage. Then she was in the audience, walking towards the front of the theater. She shook hands with some of the audience, smiling as they cheered her on, cognizant a few were using their cell phones to take pictures.
Helene, also nude, was waiting for her at the exit. All this time, Percy was at the edge of the stage, berating them both, showing how crude he really was. The reunited lovers kissed and walked out, into the lobby.
The play got mixed reviews. A familiar irritant criticized Ana, a fifty-year-old woman, for degrading herself in that way. But most got the message, although feeling it could have handled with more grace.
Most importantly, the play was profitable.
* * *
Lauren and Ana decided to have lunch together a few weeks after the play's opening.
"You know," Ana said, cautiously, "a church group picketed outside last night's performance. One had a sign saying 'Die Dykes!'. Another tried to say 'God's wrath will fall upon all lesbians', only they misspelled both 'wrath', and 'lesbian'."
"So," Lauren said, giggling, "we're the fun couple of the season. I love it!"
Ana smiled and broke apart a matzo ball, gathering more broth into her spoon while Lauren took another bite of a Reuben sandwich, pulling a bit of sauerkraut from between her teeth.
"It's so strange," Lauren said, flicking the bit of pickled cabbage into a paper napkin, "that first night, Peter's performance was amazing. The next few were very good. I thought last night lacked something."
"Isn't that what happened with his first play too?" Ana asked, "It seems he gets tired of his part very quickly."
"I could play Louise forever," Lauren said, dreamily.
Ana just smiled and said nothing. Perhaps she knew far more than she would admit to. Perhaps she could see the last act of this drama.
* * *
After three months, Peter decided to end production. While the play could have run another three months, he instigated a conflict with the Board of Directors. He was fired the same day he broke up with Lauren.
No, let me rephrase that. He was fired the same day he broke up with me, Lauren, the author of this piece.
He blamed the non-existent politics of the group, claiming that I would take the Board of Directors' side in any dispute. He blamed me for slightly agreeing with a review that blasted him for living out his sexual fantasies onstage (That may be true, but wasn't I living out mine as well? Apparently in this critic's narrow world-view, women don't fantasize about sex. Right.)
The real reason he broke my heart was never stated. We were together one day, and apart the next; strangely antiseptic. Maybe he was more like habitual-liar Percy than I realized while we were together. He recently moved to another state, ironically the same one Rosa moved to some time back. For all I know, they might have gotten back together, her masochism and necrophilia more to his liking than my gentler kinks.
But I really can't be bitter. He opened doors in my life that my upbringing had bolted closed. Yes, I am a nudist, and it has become one of the great joys in my life.
As I write this, the Caribbean breezes feel wonderful on my bare skin. Ana just sat down next to me carrying two umbrella-decorated rum concoctions. We've been here more than a week now and I'd like to think I've forgotten what clothing feels like.
But soon it will be back to clothing and winter. The company's going back to Shakespeare, its dip into the avaunt-garde a most lucrative embarrassment. It will be "Twelfth Night", this time up. I'm looking forward to it. For some reason, playing a cross-dressing noblewoman sounds like fun.