“Those bastards! Those goddamn bastards! I wanna kill every fucking last one of ‘em!”
David Dellinger was having a Vietnam flashback, which was odd considering David Dellinger was a peace activist who never served in Vietnam. The real Dellinger, that is. In the seemingly cursed community theater production of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial to which I had unfortunately attached myself, however, Dellinger was being portrayed by an ultra-right-wing Vietnam vet known only as “the Sergeant Major.” Although he had gamely put his politics aside to portray a man he had openly loathed during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, the Sergeant Major’s ire had been aroused by the sight of a North Vietnamese Liberation Front flag draped across the defense table. His timing was bad; our first performance was in half an hour.
Now the Sergeant Major was pacing the theater’s parking lot in high dudgeon. “Goddamn it! Do you know what those motherfuckers did to us? Goddamn it! Why don’t you burn that thing? Goddamn it! Those fucking hippies were just communist sympathizers!” he growled. After a pause, he added, “Goddamn it!”
Occasionally, the Sergeant Major got in the way of our hippy protestor and they had to do a shuffle-step dance around each other. Kate, the director, had wanted ten or fifteen hippies to picket the theater before performances. We got one, a fourteen-year-old kid who was at least game. Dressed in a tie-died vest and a wig that made him look more like the lead singer of a Whitesnake tribute band than a war protestor, he marched up and down the sidewalk chanting, “The whole world is watching! Free the Chicago Seven! The whole world is watching!”
The Sergeant Major, meanwhile, was still swearing copiously about the Vietnamese flag. “The flag was in the script, Sergeant Major,” I protested. “You’ve known about this since the beginning of rehearsals.”
“I thought it was just going to be a little paper flag!” he said. “Goddamn it!” He continued pacing, pausing occasionally at the front steps to give the handrail a violent shake while screaming incoherently.
“Bobby Seal’s not coming,” said a voice behind me. I turned and saw Kate, perhaps at an even higher level of dudgeon than the Sergeant Major.
“What?” I said.
“He’s got a funeral in Miami. He can’t make it.”
“Jesus, how many people connected to him are gonna die?”
“The real question is, why is he just now calling about it?” Kate said.
“What are we going to do?”
“I’ll read the part.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“What other choice do we have?” Kate took a deep breath and went back inside.
I foresaw problems. The historical Bobby Seal had been a thirtyish Black Panther at the time of the trial. Kate was a fifty-year-old, redheaded white woman. I groaned inwardly at the thought of delivering my lines as defense attorney William Kunstler that night. “Your Honor, he is a free, independent black man!” In my mind, the audience laughed and laughed. In the parking lot, the Sergeant Major yelled “Goddamn it!” at a seventy-year-old woman walking a Chihuahua. Her eyes widened and she shuffled past the theater as rapidly as she was able. The Sergeant Major stepped into the sidewalk and glared at her retreating form, thrusting his arms skyward and shrieking, “Goddamn Cong!”
I didn’t even want to be here. I had long had forebodings about this play, starting when we had to reduce the Chicago Seven to the Chicago Four after three hippies just quit showing up at rehearsals. My paranoia deepened when Kate’s dog and Bobby Seal’s wife had both died on the same day that our Tom Hayden’s grandfather had been hospitalized for a four-and-a-half hour Viagra erection. At the time, I had decided to ignore these portents, since the events could not possibly have been linked, and although Kate’s dog and Bobby Seal’s wife remained dead, Tom Hayden’s grandpa’s erection had eventually subsided.
But I could no longer kid myself. Our David Dellinger was currently back in Saigon and our Bobby Seal was now being portrayed by a white woman. I tried to take cheer from the fact that Shelley, a woman with whom I had been cautiously flirting over the past several weeks, had called earlier to say she wanted to meet me after the play to give me my “birthday present.” The prospect of a final payoff to our cautious mating dance should have brightened my outlook considerably; she was coming over to my place, a beach house with a view of the Atlantic sure to seal any romantic deal. Instead, the thought of post-performance nookie merely brought me back around to our doomed play. Like Tom Hayden’s grandpa’s penis, I knew the entire production was destined to collapse.
The first act was a disaster, of course. The witnesses didn’t come out on cue, the lights didn’t come up on time, and the judge, inexplicably, delivered several lines that were not, technically, his. Technically, they were the hippies’ lines. While a simple mistake like saying a hippy’s “Yes” or “No” might have gone unnoticed, it was hard to countenance the judge suddenly yelling, “May the record show that the prosecutor is a Nazi!” And I didn’t think the Chicago Four were coming across as sympathetic to the predominantly Republican audience. That problem was compounded when the U.S. Marshals forgot they were supposed to assault the hippies, so, after an awkward pause, the hippies began assaulting the U.S. Marshals. The act ended with all participants covered in shame and one of the marshals covered in contusions and at least two mild puncture wounds.
During intermission I stood outside the building, by a side door where actors tended to congregate to escape the cramped backstage. “This is absolute bullshit,” I growled.
“I know,” one of the prosecuting attorneys said.
The other prosecutor tried to be cheerful. It was a heartbreaking attempt, like watching a mother try to tell her son that there’s a doggy heaven. “Well, we’ve only got one more act to go,” she said. “Things could be worse.”
It was at this point that the side door by which I stood opened suddenly and forcefully into my face. I flew backward, caromed off the wall and slid to the ground, half-dazed. I looked up and saw the judge staring down at me with an expression of guilty horror.
“My God, are you all right?” he asked.
“Grraoooruuggh…” I replied.
“I said I’m fine.” I staggered to my feet, fighting off a wave of nausea. “How much time do we have?”
The kindest thing that can be said about the second act is that the theater did not actually burn down during it. Two twenty-something hipster douches in the audience, who whispered and text-messaged throughout the act, exacerbated our problems onstage. As the lights finally went down, I knew a little piece of me had died that night.
I changed out of costume in a hurry, eager to slip out of the theater before the audience could spot me and the recriminations could begin. On my way out, I saw the one of the hipster text-message douches talking to our assistant prosecutor.
“I usually have to look hard to find a way to make fun of your plays,” the hipster douche said. “But this time it’s really easy!”
“I am really furious right now, and I’m looking for someone to punch,” I growled at him as I walked past. “Don’t give me an excuse to make it you.”
The hipster douche’s eyes widened and he staggered back a step. After the fashion of his people, he was about five-six and weighed maybe a buck-ten, so perhaps my threat was mean-spirited. Well, perhaps I didn’t give a fuck.
My mood slowly lifted as I drove home. The worst was over, and at least Shelley would be over tonight. As I pulled into the driveway, I gave her a call to let her know the play was over. Her voicemail picked up, so I left a message and went inside to await her arrival.
A few minutes later I got a text. “This is Shelley’s husband,” it read. “U need 2 back off.”
Shelley’s husband, I thought. Well, that’s information I could have used before now. I went to the refrigerator and got a beer and went out to my porch. I pulled the tab and toasted the empty Atlantic.
“The whole world is watching,” I said.