"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."
The cabdriver tried to push her against a wall; she instead proposed that they "do it" on a bench. At that point, Muth read aloud the stage directions: The lights dim, and a projected slide says, "Three Minutes." When the action resumed, the hooker lay on the ground. The cabdriver knelt beside her, panting, his hands on his knees.
"It would have been better on the bench," Laura's hooker said, mournful. The kiss had been the best bit, the moment when the world seemed bright, full of promises it wouldn't keep. The cabdriver left without telling her his name.
Not surprisingly, the audition drew more men than women; male actors seem to have no qualms about either nudity or sex scenes. Muth explained that each woman would read with several men. "We're sharing our ladies," he joked. "That's what this play's about."
Laura next paired with Ken Watkins, a big lumbering guy in his forties whose résumé includes roles as a polar bear, a murderer and God. His cabdriver behaved more tenderly than the others had, but simply because of Ken's size and age, Laura's hooker looked younger and smaller, more vulnerable, more endangered.
Julie Minerbo, the second woman to arrive, wore a shiny dress with a neckline that threatened at any second to reveal the entirety of her extraordinary breasts. She read first with Wayne Wilden, a Theater LaB veteran who said he was nervous but didn't look it; then with unflappable, goateed Jeremy Kovach, who'd auditioned once before at Theater LaB; and then with the cell-phone kid, who was new to it all. Next to womanly Julie, the kid appeared to grow younger by the minute, like a time-lapse film running backward. His cabdriver's bluster appeared defensive; Julie's prostitute seemed to endanger him.
Felicidi Scott arrived last. She looked startlingly like Laura: an open-faced woman in her twenties, with similar red-blond hair and a similarly tight red shirt. Laura wore a black skirt; Felicidi wore black pants. The two are friends, but neither had known the other was auditioning for this part, much less that they'd look like twins. The similarity, Felicidi worried, might call attention to her height: At five feet nine, she's often cast as a mother, not as a romantic lead. Laura, a few inches shorter, lands those roles.
Felicidi also recognized Bruce Countryman, a former stand-up comic; they'd acted together before at the University of Houston. Bruce was more than happy to read the hooker/cabdriver scene with Felicidi, and he thought it was fun to kiss this pretty woman he hadn't seen in months. Felicidi's reaction was more mixed. She liked Bruce, and was a little relieved to perform the intimate scene with someone she already knew. But she also had to suppress the thought, "Oh, I know this guy. He's harmless."
Around 9:30 p.m., a couple of hours after the auditions had begun, Muth pronounced the preliminary readings over. He asked that Laura, Felicidi, Lynn and Wayne stay longer, to read still more scenes.
"If I'm letting you go now," Muth told the other actors, "that doesn't mean I'm not going to cast you." He'd call the lucky winners by Wednesday. If he didn't call, well, "it's water under the dam."
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Some of the departing actors -- the young ones, mostly -- took the director's kindness at face value and left with hope that he'd call, that their flirtation might yet blossom into a long-term relationship.
The older actors interpreted their dismissal as a diplomatic kiss-off, a velvety rebuff. They'd been around the block before; they knew how these things worked. Actors, like lovers, must risk rejection and failure. Usually the best part of an audition was the monologue, the audition's version of a kiss, when it was still possible to believe the encounter would lead somewhere even better. And usually, of course, you didn't get the leading role, and maybe no role at all, and you walked away into the night, to your car, wondering what had gone wrong. Were you too old? Too young? Too tall? Too short? When you had the chance, could you have done something different?
For the night's final readings, Muth paired Laura with Lynn, and Felicidi with Wayne. During a break, the two couples went their separate ways. Felicidi and Wayne stayed inside, taking seats in the tiny theater, getting to know each other before their love scene, presumably the final round of the audition. Felicidi had never met Wayne before. He was not much taller than she was, but darkly good-looking and intense, with silver earrings glinting from exotic parts of his ear. He did not look harmless. "I'm Felicidi," she said. And: "Whatever you need to do, that's cool."
Laura and Lynn went outside, where Lynn could smoke. He smokes the same way that he sits in a chair, both relaxed and coiled, ready for whatever comes. They talked, and as they returned inside, Laura said, "I'm not shy." The words seemed less important than the way she delivered them: with a backward glance over her shoulder, a nervous laugh, a nanosecond more eye contact than was strictly necessary. The flirtation might have been real, or it might have been merely professional, an actor's exercise, a warm-up for the scene ahead. In a way, it didn't matter which. The moment was magical and suspended, and while it lasted, the world seemed bright and full of possibility.