The Art of Seduction

Actors, like lovers, understand that a kiss is sometimes just a kiss

"This play is about eroticism and humor," director Ed Muth told the auditioning actors. "It's about sex and fun. There should be banter between the characters -- verbal and sexual banter -- even though it's also a powerful play. What I want you to do is to find the sex and the humor."

Lynn Miller leaned back in his chair. The actor looked both coiled and relaxed, like a sprinter in the blocks, or a panther sighting its prey. Lynn was in his element. In the '80s he acted off Broadway, and in Houston, he'd worked with Muth and Theater LaB before. Lynn knew what to expect; he knew the necessary lies that directors tell. Muth, he figured, didn't really intend to turn The Blue Room into a comedy. But asking the actors to focus on a serious play's flashes of levity is an old director's trick. It helps the actors relax, loosen up, forget to be nervous.

And certainly The Blue Room could intimidate an actor. Ten characters, all played by the same two actors, are linked each to each in a chain of copulation. A hooker services a cab driver, the cab driver seduces an au pair, and so on, through all levels of society, until at last an aristocrat wakes up with the hooker from the first scene. Some critics argue that the casting gimmick underscores all lovers' similarities, their universal hopes, lies and disappointments. Others see the opposite: The play's point, they say, is that the same human being can wear wildly different sexual masks. But for an auditioning actor, the significance is painfully clear. You have to be believable in not just one role but five. And either you win the lead, or you get nothing at all.

Laura Hooper was nervous. In '98 the play's debut had caused a sensation, chiefly because, for a few heavily hyped seconds each night, Nicole Kidman stood on stage in the altogether, revealing her bare backside to the audience. Laura was auditioning for the same role, but even dressed in a tight red T-shirt, short skirt and high patent-leather heels, she didn't appear to be the bare-backside type; she looked like a good girl masquerading as a bad one. She'd never removed her clothes on stage, and her experience with sex scenes was limited to a little kissing and groping, mainly in college workshops. And what if she were cast against a man she didn't like? she worried.

Laura, like many of the actors, had prepared a monologue, and Muth asked that she perform hers first. "This is from Girl Gone," she announced from the stage, and then suddenly, surprisingly, she morphed into a foul-mouthed stripper. Straddling a chair, she lectured an unseen feminist: "I don't tell you how to think, you don't tell me how to dance!" And: "Objectify, my ass!"

"Very nice," Muth said when she finished. "Good choice of material." His approval might have been one of those necessary lies that directors tell -- that was wonderful, don't call us, we'll call you -- but it seemed possibly true.

Next came a heavyset kid wearing baggy pants and a backward ball cap. He was 23 but looked 17, younger than The Blue Room's youngest character. In his monologue, the kid played a high school student frantically phoning friends, scared that his mother would discover he'd given his class ring to a girlfriend. The low-stakes teen melodrama belonged to a different universe than The Blue Room's pressurized sex and gamesmanship, and as the kid barked his lines into a cell phone, the other actors shifted in their seats.

The kid began to dial yet another friend. "Only one call, now," Muth interjected -- a joke, a laughing matter, but perhaps a hint that the monologue had outlasted its welcome. Unfazed, the kid slogged to the end.

"Good job," Muth said -- possibly his real opinion, but probably not.

More actors. More monologues. Muth praised them all.


At most auditions, actors perform their monologues at the appointed time and leave, hoping the director will call. For this play, though, Muth needed to see more. He wanted to see how the actors would handle the highly charged scenes, wanted to see the chemistry between the potential leads, wanted to be sure that they were capable of generating erotic heat on stage. He handed out stapled copies of a few scenes and, two by two, asked the actors to read them.

Laura and Lynn went first, acting the play's opening scene as they read their lines from the script. Laura played the 18-year-old hooker, who's new to the game and oddly self-confident. On the street, she approached Lynn's cabdriver, asked if he'd like to take her home, and didn't rescind the implied offer of sex even after he said he had no money, even after he said he wouldn't drive the ten minutes to her place. The hooker was looking for "someone long-term," she said, "someone ambitious"; the cabdriver showed no intention of being that someone. But then they kissed: "a magical, suspended moment," according to the stage directions. "The kiss is the best bit," Laura's hooker said. "I like the kiss best."

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