Saturday, March 19, 2011

Last Tango in Los Angeles: A Visit from the Past.

Last Tango in Los Angeles: A Visit from the Past.: "So my buddy, Jeff Wood, and his wife and two little girls, are coming to stay with us here in not-so-sunny Southern Cal for a week. They'll..."

A Visit from the Past.

So my buddy, Jeff Wood, and his wife and two little girls, are coming to stay with us here in not-so-sunny Southern Cal for a week. They'll be here on Monday. Their primary destination is 'Disneyland' but they'll be hanging out here and doing other things, too.

I met Jeff in 1985 in NYC. Another old friend of mine, John Bader, was completing his Equity membership year at a theatre in, of all places, Iowa, with me. Jeff was one of John's best friends. They'd gone to school together at Drake University in Des Moines. John and I became very close during our year of combat at The Old Creamery Theatre in the wilds of Iowa. We lived together in a big, old house there a block from the theatre. If I'd heard John say it once, I'd heard it a thousand times, "You have to meet my friend, Jeff Wood. You guys will really hit it off." So I moved to NYC on May 5, 1985. The night after I got there, John and Jeff and I met up for drinks. As it turned out, John was right. Jeff and I have been friends ever since.

Back in those days, Jeff was a very serious theatre director. He's since moved away from the theatre and is now a novelist. A very good one. But before that he was quite possibly the best theatre director I've ever known. Now, I say, 'very serious' theatre director because when it came to the actual work of mounting a play, he was. Jeff never really marketed himself, though. I don't know why. Just not his bailiwick, I guess. So his career in the theatre never really soared as it should have. A terrible shame as far as I'm concerned because since those aimless days of my youth I've worked with, I'm guessing here, about 100 or so professional directors. None have measured up to Jeff's work. The theatre, as one might suspect, is just full of charlatans and pretenders, no where more evident than in the field of directing. Over a long career I've worked with maybe, MAYBE, half a dozen worth their salt. Jeff was one.

I think, in retrospect, it was because Jeff didn't seem to have an ego when it came to directing. I'm sure he did, I just never saw it. He ended up directing four or five of my pieces in those early NYC days. One in particular, a play called 'Golden Eggs,' was just extraordinary work. Although I never heard him actually say it, I think one of the reasons Jeff was so good was because he didn't seem the least bit concerned with his personal 'vision' as so many directors are. His first and only concern, at least as far as I could tell, was making sure the story was told. It was always about the telling of the story in the clearest, simplest, most understandable way. And he's certainly the closest thing to a 'collaborator,' a term often tossed around in this business with nothing to show for it, that I've ever met. He didn't seem the least bit concerned about where an idea came from. If it was good, he used it. He instinctively understood that at the end of the day the program didn't say 'Directed by Jeff Wood with helpful suggestions from Sam and Bob." No, it simply said, 'Directed by Jeff Wood.' So he never seemed to be threatened by ideas and motives from actors, as outlandish as some of them sometimes were.

But Jeff was always sort of old school about marketing himself. I think he felt it was somehow a little unseemly to toss his resume around and beg for jobs. Unfortunately, in this business, at least early on, that's the game and that's how it's played. I think he would have benefitted greatly from an agent in those early days; someone to go to bat for him.

In any event, the theatre's loss was the writing world's gain. Not sure when he made the decision, but at some point he simply stopped directing and started writing.

He'd always written, short stories mostly back then, and I remember one particular short story with particular endearment. It was called 'Suicide Kings.' I had just moved into a new one-bedroom apartment by myself in Astoria, Queens. And to commemorate the occasion I called up a bunch of friends and had an all night stud poker game, something we used to do fairly regularly back then.

A few months passed and one day Jeff gave me the short story (about twenty pages) he'd written about that night, loosely based of course. It remains to this day my favorite piece of short prose writing. Filled with nuance, character study, supressed drama and sadness, it's a beautiful piece. It was then that I remember thinking he'd probably moved on to writing and that he would eventually leave the theatre behind.

We lost touch for a long time while I was constantly on the road doing acting gigs around the country and then moving to Chicago. I hadn't heard from him for a long time and had no idea where he was, in fact. Finally I heard, through John I think, that he'd moved to the mountains of Colorado to write full time. He'd gotten married and adopted two little girls.

And now, through the miracle of the internet, we've reopened our friendship and converse daily. Furthermore, much to my delight, he's decided to take a road-trip to Southern California to introduce his daughters to The Mouse.

So we've got a week of activities planned - Disneyland being ground zero, of course - but a couple of nights have been set aside to sit out back by the horses, around our fire pit, sipping beer and iced tea, grilling steaks and telling sad stories of kings past.

There's something satisfying in a solitary way of hanging out with people that knew you when you were young. I have the same feeling when I spend time with my two closest buds out here, John Bader and Jimmy Barbour. I think it has something to do with seeing each other through the years at our very best and very worst. The lines of conduct have been drawn and consequently there's no reason to talk about them. In essence, it's because we KNOW why we're friends. There's no need to invent scenarios in which we MIGHT be friends. We already know. So everything after becomes comfortable. The hard part is over, the intellectual dance of pushing and pulling and testing the friendship. So everything else is gravy.

Should be a fun week and I'm looking forward to it with glee. If for no other reason than Jeff and I make each other laugh. And that's a massive thing, a huge thing, an underrated thing, a deal-breaking thing, as far as I'm concerned. A shared sense of humor is the first test for possible friendship in my book of sorrows and rules. And that hurdle was jumped, with plenty of room to spare, in May of 1985. Since then it's all been easy.

See you tomorrow.