One of my favorite theater stories is about Alexander Woolcott, who was watching a play with increasing displeasure when a telephone suddenly rang onstage. “It’s for me!” Woolcott cried, and swept regally out of the theater.
Well, that wasn’t very nice of him, was it? The Season of Good Will is upon us, however, and thus it was that in this dire theater season for plays, I found myself at The Last Supper , written, directed, produced and performed by Ed Schmidt in his own apartment on West 27th Street.
Let me confess from the outset that I don’t know how I got myself into this. But then, I’m not so sure that Mr. Schmidt knows how he got himself into this, either. I was guilted into it. Mr. Schmidt is doing it because he’s nuts. Or he’s a theater idealist-a class of mankind that’s loopy enough at the best of times.
He lives in a loft-like apartment with a very loving wife, two small children and several rows of church pews. Apparently he used to live in Park Slope, where he also performed his re-creation of The Last Supper in his kitchen, but there was only room for 15 people. The show-if that’s the word-proved so successful that Mr. Schmidt transferred it to his current place on West 27th Street, where there’s room in the kitchen for as many as 32 people.
This is the first time I’ve been offered a bribe at the theater. Or so I thought when an envelope fell out of my program discreetly labeled “Offering.” But there was nothing inside! The offering-later suggested at about $50 to $75 by Mr. Schmidt during the performance-is for the price of admission, including supper. You can leave more if you like.
He sort of cooks during The Last Supper, kicking it up a notch in the second act. But he modestly admits he’s no chef. Not like the Times food writer and playwright Jonathan Reynolds, who’s currently cooking an opulent meal, accompanied by anecdotes, at Second Stage Theatre. But in his modest way, Mr. Schmidt has bigger fish to fry. His apartment also becomes the Church of the Holy Transformation before curtain-up.
Hence the pews. Can you imagine church pews cluttering up your apartment, assuming there’s even room? And strangers, too? It just shows how committed Mr. Schmidt really is. There was also the faint aroma of stew, which reminded me of the time when the eccentric Sir Ralph Richardson attended Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen and was bewildered by the smell of liver and onions. “Isn’t there a rather curious smell in this theater?” he asked his wife. To which she patiently replied, “It’s the play, dear.”
The Last Supper takes place with Mr. Schmidt, who’s perhaps 40 years old, at his kitchen island, where he stands informally dressed, looking affable. There were about 23 souls in the pews facing him that cold night I went, including what I took to be a contingent of Burmese students. “Please turn your hymnals to hymn No. 223, ‘I Love to Tell the Story,’” he announced. “We will stand and sing the first verse only.”
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know it’s true
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.
I was surprised how many sang along with Mr. Schmidt, who admits he’s no singer. When we were seated again, he told the story of the Last Supper and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. “And people actually believe this story!” he announced indignantly.
He seemed to be dismissing it all as “hocus-pocus.” “And yet. And yet! People believe. Normal, average, everyday people like you and me actually believe these stories,” he added later with a certain fervor. “Because if you believe in the storyteller, you will believe in the story. I’ll say that again so no one forgets: If you believe in the storyteller, you will believe in the story.”
But did I believe in Mr. Schmidt? I had my doubts when he was interrupted by his cell phone ringing with someone making a reservation for the show. (“You know what?” he said after a while. “This is not a good time to talk.”) There were many bewildering digressions. There was the one involving the audience member who volunteered to audition for the role of Judas by reading from Witness for the Prosecution . Or the detailed account of the I.R.S. functionary named Arthur Miller who is harassing Mr. Schmidt for opening a theater in his home. But it isn’t a theater, he stresses. “I state that this is not a play. You are not in a theater, I am not an actor ¼ I am in fact an ordained minister.”
To prove it, he handed round a certificate that says he became a minister of the Universal Life Church of Modesto, Calif., for “9 dollars and 95 cents, if I remember correctly.” The certificate is attached to his refrigerator.
Mr. Schmidt, who might be channeling Andy Kaufman, is, in fact, a playwright, though, as yet, he hasn’t been too successful. This might be because he’s an “anti-playwright.” His program proudly lists numerous American theaters he says have turned down his plays. “Arena Stage (‘not right’), Manhattan Theater Club (‘really don’t think it’s right’), Ensemble Studio Theatre (‘not right for us at this time’), American Place (‘do not feel that it is a play for us at this time’), Los Angeles Theatre Center (‘does not suit our needs at the present time’) ¼ . “
Others were clearly enjoying The Last Supper, but I would be less than candid if I didn’t admit to feeling tempted to slip out during the intermission, when Mr. Schmidt kindly laid out wine and cheese for all in an adjoining room. It seemed to me that though the evening had its moments, they were getting fewer. There were stretches when he seemed to be telling his story deliberately badly-a rare art form perfected only by the beloved Kiki and Herb. I feared the good-natured Mr. Schmidt really would need a miracle to save the day.
Yet I lingered in my pew, and he didn’t seem to mind me watching him during intermission doing something behind a curtain at the back of the room. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! His wife and one of the children were helping him. Some magic was afoot, I dare say.
And so I stayed for the second act, but when Mr. Schmidt drifted into a long, incomprehensible enactment of a tale about an elderly Italian woman with a Russian accent and a missing case of wine, he lost me. I thought he sensed it, seeming to address me personally. Perhaps he knew I was a critic. Performers can always spot critics. They’re the miseries with the poison quills. But I felt certain he was looking directly at me when he threw down this risky challenge as he explained how weird it is trying to make what is laughably known as a living in his line of work.
“If you valued your life a penny’s- worth, if you truly understood how fragile and precious and fleeting life is, I swear to God you would stand up right now and you would say, ‘What in God’s name am I doing here listening to this raving mediocrity?’ And you would leave! You would stand up and leave!”
This was my Alexander Woolcott moment! (“It’s for me!”) But I didn’t leave. I was tempted . And I admit I skipped the after-show supper. But only because I had an urgent appointment with my manicurist. When I got home that night, I described all I had seen, moaning a bit about The Last Supper and what seemed to me to be Mr. Schmidt’s practical joke.
“But a miracle did happen,” my better half explained to my surprise. “You stayed!”
True! And I realize now that the nutty Mr. Schmidt creates some kind of miracle every time he performs. On the one hand, he represents every artist in New York City who’s battling beyond hope for some recognition, some acknowledgment and thanks, in the punishing, divine world of theater. On the other hand, he reminds us that even when everything appears lost in theater, we never lose faith in it.
A few days later, the curtain was about to go up on Wonderful Town on Broadway, and behind me a child asked her grandmother excitedly, “When does the show begin?”
“You’ll know it’s starting when the lights go down,” Granny explained. “Look, darling! The lights are going down now. The curtain’s going up. Here we go! Here we go!”
That’s it, isn’t it? In theater, it’s forever “Here we go!” In theater, it’s always a new beginning, always an act of faith that a miracle will happen.
Happy holidays, everyone! See you all in the New Year.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.