Better Sex with Strangers :: ’Hello Again’
"Awkward," she says. "This is so awkward." And she laughs demurely. "I've never done anything like this before. I'm an innocent."
Aubin Wise is standing in a chair above Jared Dixon awaiting instruction. It's a blocking rehearsal of the musical "Hello Again," and though it's not explicitly stated in the script she knows what she's supposed to do next: Give Jared a handjob.
"You ready for this, Jared?" The end of the actress' mouth turns up in a toying smile. Aubin has an extensive resume, and the shows she's done haven't all been "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "A Little Princess" -- she's also done "Hair," "The Rocky Horror Show" and "The Libertine" -- so she's probably had a little bit more experience with the staging of sexuality than she lets on at this moment. Still, she plays the anticipation of the moment to perfection. "Jared came prepared," she announces.
"Oh?" This bit of information intrigues the choreographer, Stephen Ursprung, but he's careful not to sound too interested. Everyone in the room wants to know what Aubin is talking about, but no one want to appear too eager to ask. We all pretend we're not interested in the subject we're all completely focused on: The man in the chair.
The floors of the stage in the Davis Square Theatre have been marked with tape to set the playing space for this early rehearsal. The actual show will take place at the Boston Center for the Arts where the line between the actors and audience won't be so neatly delineated. The audience will sit with the actors in a bar; they will stand on the tables in front of us and speak to each other beside us, so close we can reach out and touch them. But this setting is more than just a bar; it's a place that you go to get laid.
Knowing how to command an audience, Aubin waits, letting her last statement land in our minds, and allowing our eyes to move from Jared back to her, hungry for more information. Then she tosses out, "Today he’s actually wearing underwear."
If you’ve never seen Jared Dixon before, (I feel I can say without hyperbole) you are missing out on one of the true joys of life. I’ll never forget the way the audience gasped and hooted when Jared appeared with his shirt off in the musical "In the Heights."
Oh, grow up, I thought. Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean you can treat him as a sex object.
This is not, however, what I was thinking when he came into the rehearsal today and spoke to me. "What are you doing here?" he asked, removing his pullover and revealing a glimpse of his bare abdomen.
I swallowed hard, trying to make words come out. "Just observing," I said.
"This is the most traditional show I’ve done in a long time," he commented.
"Really?" I questioned. What in the world is traditional about Michael John LaChuisa’s musical adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s "La Ronde"? What in the world is formulaic about this daisy chain of sexual encounters and love affairs among ten characters in ten scenes? And what normal about a musical that takes place in each decade of the 20th Century, in a non-chronological order, allowing for a huge variety of musical styles.
Moreover how is this at all tradition for Jared? The two rolls Jared plays in the show are completely against his type. Jared is a sure bet for the young lover. His natural charm, deep brown eyes and velvety baritone melt you like bourbon on an August afternoon. (His scenes in "The Color Purple" were some of the most joyful and sexy of the play.) But the men Jared plays in "Hello Again" both philander in their long, unsatisfying marriages. They are manipulative, prudish, sexist, self-righteous and often downright smarmy.
"You mean this show is more traditional than ’A Little Princess’?" I ask.
Jared simply smiles that smile that makes you forget to think straight, and I’m reminded that even though "A Little Princess" is based on a 19th Century novel for little girls, the actor had his shirt off throughout almost that entire show (that’ll learn those little girls a thing or two). I guess when casting Jared, different standards are "traditional."
"You don’t usually wear underwear?" Stephen is the only one with the courage to ask Jared the question that we are all dying to know.
"Not usually," says Jared.
I have no idea if he’s kidding or not, playing along with Aubin intoxicating game. But I do know that the room is silent. I’ll put a bet on the image running through everyone’s mind.
What Would Have Been
In the scene they’re rehearsing, Aubin works to seduce Jared. He is a 1980s senator and she is his mistress, an actress. She wants to take the relationship to the next level and he want to end it.
The recitative dialogue follows Schnitzler’s psychologically complex play quite closely, often replicating fragments of his dialogue. The play was first produced in 1897, so of course it has none of the 20th Century allusions and playful pastische, which includes music ranging from a parody of German Opera to 1970s disco.
Director Michael Bello is painstakingly dissecting each moment of this sometimes-spoken, sometimes-sung dialogue with the couple. Every movement and each motivation is being explored for meaning and effectiveness.
"Let’s go from the top," says Michael.
At this point, Aubin speaks her dialogue. "You’re not going anywhere," her character says to Jared’s. "Look, I’ve arranged for this beautiful view."
"Sally..." Jared pulls away, but he can’t go far as they are in a restricted space.
"My senator doesn’t visit New York as much as he used to." Aubin commands the scene. You would expect no less from such a strong woman, but there’s something desperate and aching in her voice. "My senator doesn’t call as often as he used to..."
"So Aubin," says Michael stopping the scene for a moment. "I’m giving you this note solely off what you’re doing, because I love it so much. The first time you say ’my senator’ enjoy the word ’senator,’ and the second time, possess him with the word ’my.’"
Michael kneels on the floor looking up at the actors. He always remains close enough to hand them a prop or even physically move them. Stephen sits away from the action at this point in one of the house seats.
Michael and Stephen have an interesting relationship, simpatico with an edge. Each man seems to know his job, and they easily move back and forth between observing each other’s work and taking the reins. I’ve watched as Michael said to Stephen, "I need something here that’s... like... wild, random, spontaneous, completely controlled choreographic movement. Do you know what I mean?"
At this point Stephen sets his hand on the director’s shoulder and says with complete surety, "This is what I do."
"What would have been is sad..." Jared sings this line of dialogue, then pauses.
"Later on is..." Michael prompts.
"Later on is..." Jared stops, chuckles a little and says, "I don’t know what that means, honestly. ’What would have been is sad. Later on is sad.’"
Michael explains to Jared that his character isn’t intending to say, "Later on is sad;" he’s intending to say something else. In other words, "Let’s not say, ’What would have been,’ let’s say ’Later on.’ " The meaning the senator is trying to convey in this bit of dialogue is like the phrase, "Let’s not say, ’goodbye.’ Let’s just say, ’until next time.’ "
"There’s a phrase for this that’s on the tip of my tongue," says Michael. "It’s like when people say, ’Go for it, because you’ll regret it if you don’t.’ "
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, like... If you..." Jared searches for the words.
"YOLO," Aubin says, an acronym that stands for You Only Live Once, and the Urban Dictionary describes as "What dumbasses say to excuse their stupid behavior."
"Kind of like YOLO," says Michael in a slightly wry tone.
"YOLO," Stephen laughs.
"’What would have been’ is an opportunity missed," says Michael. " ’Later on’ you still get the opportunity of having that experience... I think is what he’s saying."
As they return to the scene, the senator can hardly look at his lover as he sings in a somewhat discordant, minor key, "What would have been is sad..." Just then he catches her eye, and they both know what will inevitably follow. "Later on is..."
Aubin reaches out and touches Jared’s face, then quietly sings, "Sad."
"Sad," Jared responds.
"I like this," Michael says to Aubin. "I think you could touch his face as though you’re about to kiss him." The director stands close to the intimate pair, but they proceed as though they are alone. "And then you put the lid on it," Michael says to Jared.
Even though the senator wants to have sex with his mistress, the responsibility that comes from this interaction is not worth it.
"Or heart," says Stephen to Aubin. "What if you put your hand on his heart?"
"Yeah!" Aubin smiles, excited.
Michael glances over at Stephen without turning his head; a whisper of a smile crosses his lips. "You see, this is why we keep him around."
Wife, Whore and a Hook-Up in a Public Park
In the next scene the company rehearses, Jared plays dogmatic but hypocritical Husband in the 1950s who tells his Young Wife that before they met he had sex with a prostitute, but that those people are morally bankrupt and now the prostitute is probably dead.
Stephen has been off to one side of the stage working on choreography with Lauren Eicher, the actress who plays The Whore. At this point in the rehearsal, while The Young Wife sings her memory to us, The Whore is going to join the scene and do an expressionistic dance beside her.
"We took out a couple of swipes." Stephen demonstrates some grand hand gestures. "It felt too, like, um..."
Michael nods his head several times. "It felt very dance-y. Good. That was... That was gonna be my next..."
"I’m still not sure of this moment." Stephen moves his hands around in front of his face. Apparently, he’s putting on make-up in a very abstracted way. "I’m just still not sure what it is."
"So, Sarah, can we start it, like, from the top, top?" asks Michael. But Stephen isn’t quite finished; he stands on the stage and dances by himself.
"Sorry, I’m just trying out a few things," says the choreographer as he continues to move, but now, if he’s still putting on make-up, he doing it like he’s Jackson Pollock. "I just don’t want it to be like..."
I don’t know how to describe what Stephen is doing now, but I can definitely see why he doesn’t want it to be like that.
"I think it’s more like you’re pulling out a memory," says the choreographer, "and then shoving back in. It’s more direct... and then like... let it go."
After a moment, when it seems like Stephen has finished, Michael says, "That’s fun... but I also want to see how these two things relate to each other."
Sarah Talbot, who plays The Young Wife, is preparing for her Boston debut, and her attitude is notably different from the other actors. She sits up strait at her dressing table, ridged, and every line she delivers is as full performance quality, even though she has no accompaniment.
"Okay." She has been poised with imaginary lipstick, but she takes it away from her mouth long enough to ask: "So do you want me to start?"
As she prepares to go to the opera with her husband, Sarah’s character remembers "the greatest of adventures of her life." It was one year ago. She was married at the time, and at a luncheonette a beautiful man caught her eye. She left the restaurant and didn’t look back, but he pursued her all the way to a public park.
She gasped as he appeared behind her and then said, simply, "Hello."
Sarah is putting on make-up realistically while Lauren mirrors her like a fun house mirror with Stephen’s signature choreography.
"Great, great, great." Michael stops the scene and takes a deep breath. "Can I just try something, Stephen?"
"Of course," says the choreographer.
"Can you just stand right here?" Michael places Lauren beside Sarah. "And can you mirror all of her movements? Directly. I just want to see what it looks like. Version B. With them doing the exact same thing."
"Um-hm..." Stephen doesn’t sound convinced, but he watches as Sarah sings the song again and puts on more imaginary lipstick.
"I think there’s some mileage in that." Michael likes the way "Version B" looks.
For Stephen the odometer is not reading. "Yeah..."
"Well I think... the mileage in this.. the difference between her lipstick..." Michael delicately pats his thumb and forefinger to his lips. "And her... like, lipstick..." The director’s mouth is now open in an ’O’ shape, and he’s drawing circles in front of his face with his hand. "You know what I mean. It’s like how these two women do the same task differently."
"My concern is that it distracts from the actual meaning of the song," says Stephen.
But the problem for Michael is, "I think the choreography in plan A was just too good. You know. Because at the end of the day we want to be following her story..." He turns to Sarah. "And I was just too interested in her story." He looks at Lauren.
"Okay. I understand that." Stephen is on board with the first part of what Michael has said. "But for me, the metaphor becomes a cliché."
"Yeeeaaah..." Michael holds out the vowels in this word for a long time.
"If it’s too literal it becomes cheap for me. And I don’t really think that’s the story."
"Can I ask a question?" say Lauren. "Is it in the script that she’s putting on make-up? Why is make-up this big deal of choice?"
Michael thinks about this for a moment. "Um... well we have this vanity for her..."
In particular, The Whore’s sexuality in this play is needy and desperate, Stephen explains, and her fate is tragic. Why should a comparison be draw between her and the woman who has the only positive sexual experience in the play?
They try the scene again, and in the song Sarah remembers that beyond the physical interaction and the word "Hello," the only words she spoke with this man was to ask his name.
"I don’t remember my husband’s name. I don’t remember my lover’s name. But I do remember a stranger’s name. His name is... Tom."
"It’s like in ’Angels in America,’ " Michael explains to Stephen, "when Prior comes out in full on drag make-up. Because that’s Prior’s fantasy. In Sarah fantasy, she’s actually done her hair. You know. And put on lipstick."
"But I was putting on lipstick before," says Sarah, "and now I’m still putting on lipstick. Is there a difference between getting ready for the opera and getting ready for... Tom?"
"I think the difference is in the lipstick shades," Michael qualifies. "For her husband it’s, like, a sensible pink. For Tom... Red! I can wax poetic on the metaphor of the whole thing, but none of that is going to be incredibly active for Lauren."
"For me it’s less about whatever action she’s doing," says Stephen, "and why she’s there in the first place."
"You know," Lauren interrupts, "The part I can see myself playing in this... is Tom."
The two men both look at her for a long time and say absolutely nothing. From the other room, we can hear Jared rehearsing his music with the music director, Mindy Cimini. Ironically, he is cheating on his wife in that scene, cruzing a boy-toy on the Titanic while the ship is sinking and knowing that they are both going to die. He sings, "Myself! Myself! Myself! Myself!" I think his character has just had an orgasm.
Lauren looks back at the two men, who still say nothing, and continues, "I could be Tom. Does that make any sense?"
There is another very long pause.
"I mean, not like literally," Lauren continues. "This isn’t... a movie. We don’t have to do anything like... I don’t know."
Then Michael turns to Stephen and says, "I mean, to me The Whore is like the devil on her shoulder. The Whore is like the embodiment of the demon inside of her."
"I just have a lot of questions about societal implications of sexuality," says Stephen. "Is she aspiring to be a whore?"
"I only ask these questions because I feel The Whores motives are very different."
"No they’re good questions, but..." Michael continues to think. "I don’t know that we, in our brains, have to like see them in the same world. You know what I mean. They could be in two different places, but in the same theatrical space."
"Sure. But then, like, why?"
"Hey Michael," the production stage manager, Cassie M. Seinuk, breaks in. "I just want you to know it’s 9:30 and we have to put the whole scene together. This is all great stuff, but... let’s rough something out. I just wanna make sure we... get somewhere today."
"Should we put a pin in the metaphor conversation," says Michael, "and map out the scene... you know, with her mirroring."
"Sure. You can do whatever you want," says Stephen.
"So. We may revisit," says Michael. "This may be something we revisit continually between now and opening to figure it out."
With her imaginary lipstick in place, Sarah prepares to do the scene again. But before she does, she says to herself, "My lips are going to be so moisturized."
Greatest of Adventures of Your Life
How many times have you sat in a bar and hoped that you would meet that someone who was the embodiment of the qualities you found, and qualities you fail to find, in all of your previous lovers? Someone who you could sleep beside and let your dreams mingle with in a dark bedroom?
"Hello Again" offers to become this faceless lover in the end of the play. It invites you to join it, as it transforms itself into "what you never found in any lover."
"You don’t have to remember a face, a place, or when," the play offers.
"We’re all so desperately lonely," says Michael. "And all the characters in this play are looking for a connection."
You know that you cannot go around connecting with everyone you’d like to. And the people in this play are not happy. Their interactions lead them to some desperate and painful places.
But the play continues to coax you into its final siren song.
"We may die tomorrow," the play says... or, rather, The Whore says to you as she solicits you. But will you be taken in by a whore?
On the other hand, there’s something about the way Aubin puts it. "YOLO," she says. Sometimes you just gotta "YOLO."
And the play echoes her sentiment in its final line as it beacons you to join it: After all, "We may never be saying... hello again."
Playing through March 29 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information go to bridgerepofboston.com