Public Therapy for Actors, Bit of Catharsis for Me

I love actors, but you don’t want to go to summer camp with them. In the company of actors, the outsider better be a good listener. They have been known to be a wee bit self-involved. And yet I always respond to their tales and fragility and open hearts. Only actors live in fear of humiliating rejection. Only actors, playing their parts, die nightly to be resurrected the next evening.

Who in their right mind would be an actor? Who else lives out life as an eternal audition? The recent masochistic evening entitled Fired! at the Second Stage Theatre was a form of public therapy for actors who’ve been fired, some of them well-known and still grieving, in their way.

The cast of amiable losers included Fisher Stevens, a terrific stage actor who was fired from what was intended to be a recurring guest spot as a psychiatrist on Friends . But he saw himself as a superior member of the New York theatah . It was the early days of Friends and Mr. Stevens, who appeared in only one episode, charmingly confessed how he came to tell the writers of the show that he thought their script was lousy.

Then Craig Bierko of Sex and the City and The Music Man came on to tell us, at cool length, how he turned down a leading role in the original pilot of Friends . He fired himself! He chose another TV series instead that was actually called Best Friends . “Listen,” Mr. Bierko confided amusingly. “I’m no dummy. If there had been a show called Super Mega Friends , I would have chosen that one.”

At least Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award–winning actress currently starring in Caroline, or Change , wasn’t fired from Friends , too. She was fired from the hit Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam , and her story was a weird public confession. Though this lovely actress was a great success in the show, she told us how she neurotically “projected” her fear of getting fired onto the director George Wolfe so much that he eventually fired her! In a perverse way, she got her wish, and let’s hope she’s over it now.

“They are the only honest hypocrites,” William Hazlitt wrote about his beloved actors in his classic On Acting and Actors , the essay that remains the finest I’ve read about our understandably insecure “representatives of human nature.” Shakespeare-an actor, after all-famously advised actors how to act in his plays, but I think Hazlitt understood their unchanging psyche better.

“Their life is a voluntary dream; a studied madness,” he wrote. “The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves . To-day kings, to-morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves that they are nothing.”

And here were the actors-kings and beggars!-at the Second Stage evening, telling us their tales of woe and revenge, and all of them read from scripts! Their own lives only amounted to something as themselves if it became a performance!

But without the performance, I wouldn’t have known of the story of the now-retired performer, Matt Walsh, who was fired as a “Happy Birthday” singing telegram when he forgot the name of the miserable birthday boy. And I wouldn’t have seen the droll docudrama by Eric Simonson, who was fired as the “third or fourth director” of Paul Simon’s doomed $11 million musical, The Capeman , and still looks as if he’s been hit over the head with a meat ax.

Best of all was the amazing account of the actress Elizabeth Warner, who had us convulsed telling us what she had to go through to keep her role as a witch in Madison Square Garden’s annual Halloween Scream Park: “All it took was a bottle of Wesson oil and two quarts of soy sauce.”

But in the end, there are only so many actors’ stories in the naked city. My attention began to drift, I must admit, when someone bounded onstage to tell us how he got fired from the role of a man-size lizard in an HBO series about circus freaks. As he rambled manically on, I found myself drifting back to the memory of the time I was fired.

I wouldn’t be telling you this if the story didn’t have a stunning theatrical conclusion.

A few years ago, when I began writing this column, Anna Wintour gave me a lucrative contract to write a few features each year for Vogue . Anna has been a friend of mine since before she wore sunglasses, and it was her way, I like to think, of subsidizing the arts. My editor, whose expertise was in style and gardening, was named Michael Boodro. But every time I sent over an article on, say, an extremely arduous visit to some $10,000-a-night spa in Thailand, or on the state of Broadway, he would say: “Needs a little work.”

I would like to think I’m up to the standards of Vogue , but, alas, Mr. Boodro never did. In my house, “Needs a little work” became a catch phrase. No matter what I wrote, it was never acceptable to him. One day, he took me out to lunch with an embarrassed colleague to tell me that everything I’d ever written for the magazine bored him.

Three or four rich, blissfully neurotic years passed, until a very nice lady telephoned to say that unfortunately they couldn’t renew my Vogue contract because it was too expensive. For a long time afterward, I still got a bottle of champagne from Anna at Christmas thanking me for “Another great year!” But it was goodbye at last to “needs a little work.”

Here comes the point of my story, and the stunning coup de theatre that soon followed:

A short while afterward, I was invited to review a play called Seeing Things at the small Off Broadway theater Altered Stages. It was a first play by an editor at Vogue named Michael Boodro. It was him !

Oh, my! Thank you! Thank you, God! One should never crow, of course, lest you end up eating it. But still … what a golden opportunity ! My four-word review was already written: “Needs a little work!”

I immediately sent over a note to Anna Wintour saying how much I was looking forward to “Michael’s play.” A subtle warning , I thought. But Anna called my bluff and invited me to the opening night with her. I don’t think it was a gala evening, but I replied that I had to reluctantly forgo the pleasure of her company as I was attending the night for critics and needed to keep a clear, thoroughly objective eye, as always.

Meanwhile, my family was dancing the hora. But as Mr. Boodro’s big night approached, I found myself having second thoughts. Pygmies cast long shadows, and getting even is sweet. But I was raised to rise above it, and sometimes the gods know what they’re doing.

I passed up the opportunity to take easy shots at Mr. Boodro’s Seeing Things . Others had their say instead. “A young man runs away from home and becomes a Boston doctor’s sex slave,” The Times ‘ short, dismissive review began. “He and four fellow slaves live in the attic in a kind of Dickensian psychedelia, taking drugs, having sex with one another and striking poses in their underwear. The actors in Seeing Things overcome this material now and then.”

The Village Voice described Mr. Boodro’s writing as “teeming with clichés,” “pretentious” and “trash.”

His play wasn’t widely reviewed. And, odd though it may seem, his comeuppance gave me no pleasure. It is never pleasant being fired or insulted, as every actor and anyone of good will surely appreciate. But revenge is a dish best served cold.

Gee, it’s cold!

Public Therapy for Actors, Bit of Catharsis for Me