A few years ago Jerry walked into a rehearsal for a reading I was acting in as favor for a fellow playwright. After chatting happily with other members of the cast, he slumped down in the house seat next to the one in which I sat, taking my break. My hand thus forced to politeness, I asked,“How are you, Jerry?”
“Oh, you know. I’m old and I’m tired.” Jerry was gaunt with AIDS the entire time I knew him, and I, along with everyone, assumed his health was at all times precarious.
Now I had had my run-ins with Jerry prior to this exchange, and by this time I had grown generally tired of him. He knew this. So something about him saying what he did, and how he said it, boosted a jolt of anger up through me. I pushed it back down so that I could quietly respond, “Well, Jerry, consider the alternative.”
See, Jerry and I sat on opposite sides of a divide. Some say it’s permanent. Some say it’s widening. Some say it’s not nearly as bad as all that. But the fact remained, he was the artistic director of a big house theatre in my town and he, like most artistic directors at big houses across the country, had no interest in developing new plays. Whatever was hot last year off-Broadway would suffice to scratch the itch of “newness”, and since he never truly suffered that itch much anyways, his default preference would always be to offer up some Mamet or some Moliere, Of Mice and Men or The Three Musketeers. Jerry liked it safe and comfortable, in as much as man who is almost sure to die before his time can be safe and comfortable.
One time, a few years earlier than all this, there was a big symposium in my town to talk about why theatres weren’t more actively supporting living playwrights and the development of new plays. There was a lot of heated back and forth. Finally Jerry stood, and with his customary quiet, “look-at-me-aren’t-I-self-deprecatingly-reasonable?” demeanor said, “You know, the fact is that we [meaning he and his fellow Big House Artistic Directors] have been looking around the local playwrights’ community for excellence and we’re just not finding it.”
It was a shockingly shitty thing to say. Made even more shocking perhaps by the off-handedly avuncular way Jerry said it. My gut clenched and my face burned, and I had to swallow to find my voice, but as soon as I found it, I stood: “You know, Jerry, we playwrights are looking around the community of artistic directors in this town for excellence and we’re just not finding it either.”
A day or two later Jerry wrote me a personal email in which he apologized for saying what he did. “I always regret opening my big mouth after the fact. It would have been a whole easier if I hadn't said anything.”
This email bugged me almost as much as the original statement. It was proof positive that his methods and inclinations were diametrically oriented to mine. And maybe that’s the crux of the issue between us. We never really comprehended each other. I suspect I read him better than he read me, but little did it avail me, or him. When the book is trite, being able to read it crisply, every word in detail, doesn’t help the reader much, nor does it improve the book.
A year or so ago, Jerry went in for a routine heart operation. Very minimal risk. For a healthy man. But Jerry was not a healthy man, and when complications developed, his body couldn’t sustain the strain, and thus he arrived, as we both knew he would, at the alternative.