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The Cowboy Chronicles


Then Phil and I took Pam and Bud downstairs to rehearse dialogue. Not only did I not have a coat, but I hadn't even brought a sweater or sweatshirt. I considered taking down the drapes and wrapping myself in them.

"You're speaking too precisely," Phil told David Elder. He might just be the best Bud we have had. But he grew up in Houston and has been trying to play down his accent ever since.

"I'm sorry, diction is a big thing with me," David said.

"God, I hate diction queens," Phil retorted, laughing.

More scenes. More freezing.

"Bud has no subtext," Phil said. "Pam is all subtext. Bud just means what he says. Pam, no matter what she says, means 'I want to get laid.' "

At 6 p.m., we finally broke. We all ran for the cars, because cars have heaters.

I reported to Phil's place at 10 A.M. to work on the script. We kept on fiddling with the opening, which was supposed to be a combination of song and monologue by Bud. It was to begin with his saying good-bye to Spur, so I wrote:

BUD: I passed the Cadillac dealership, closed. Passed the John Deere dealership, closed. Passed the movie theater, closed. Passed the funeral parlor, open. That's the only growth industry in town.

At noon, we went to the theater to rendezvous with three newly arrived actors: funny woman Susan Mansur (Aunt Corene), melodious Michael Arkin (Uncle Bob), and Angela Pupello (Sissy), who had finally gotten in around five o'clock in the morning. We piled into cars and headed for the dance camp to rehearse.

Phil and I worked with Bud and Sissy in the downstairs living room, and I learned another way in which plays are different from movies. Making a movie, the director usually lets the actors do whatever they want on the first take. Then he or she will say something vague like: "Give me a different color," and then, "Let's do it again." Later he or she goes in the cutting room and picks a favorite performance. In other words, film directors don't want every take to be the same. What would be the point? But theater directors want to find a performance that can be infinitely repeated. One just like the other, over and over, night after night. So Phil kept stopping the actors every few words to give them notes. That tactic would be expensive in the movie business, since it would waste a lot of film.

Lesley proposed a toast: "When you get to Broadway, break a leg and all their hearts."

The next morning, we moved into the theater for the first time -- 267 East Main Street. We had a home at last. It felt cozy -- there was heat, for one thing -- but tense. Tom Zemon, the actor playing Wes, our villain, was acting a little too villainous offstage. When Phil confronted him, he apologized, saying he was so used to playing villains that he often came across as more negative than he intended. The rest of the day, Tom followed us all around like a puppy hoping to be petted.

After rehearsal, Piano John came over to Phil's to work on the opening song. They had a huge fight. Phil accused him of not being willing to cut anything. John accused Phil of destroying his music. Piano John also complained about his room. No phone. No curtains. Lumpy mattress. Misery upon misery.

Lesley came up to watch rehearsals. She was crazy about Tom. "He's going to steal the show," Lesley predicted. "I know you wanted to fire him."

"I got over that."

"I never liked those songs until I heard him sing them," she added.

"Okay, Okay."

Then Tom fell asleep on the stage and snored while two other actors were rehearsing a scene. "Pay no attention to the beast," Phil said.

When it was his turn to rehearse, Tom woke up energized. As he sang "I know I broke the law," he put broke in quotes by crooking two fingers on each hand. During a break, Piano John started imitating him, gesticulations and all: "I know I stabbed my wife. I know she bled on the carpet . . ." On and on.

Angela chimed in: "I know I used a chainsaw on my mother . . ."

Then phil got in a fight with Daria Hardeman, who played Jesse. We were rehearsing the scene where Wes blackmails Jesse into letting him stay in the trailer out behind Gilley's. Jesse said maybe it wasn't blackmail. Maybe Jesse secretly liked Wes. I thought maybe she had a point, but Phil didn't.

"No, it's just blackmail," Phil said. "She won't have anything to do with him. Not now. Not anymore."

"Okay," Jesse said, shaking her head.

"Why are you shaking your head?" demanded Phil. "I hate it when an actor agrees but shakes her head. If you disagree, tell me."

"I'll do it your way," said Jesse. "You're the boss."

"I find that insulting," Phil replied. "I find that highly insulting."

When Phil finally calmed down, the actors did the scene the way he wanted. Later, Wes noticed that we had moved his last song from after the rodeo to before it. He said he wasn't sure the change would work for him. Oh, no. After rehearsal, Phil surprised me: "He's right." We would go back to the old progression: The song would come after the rodeo.

"Jesse will kill me," Phil said.

Lesley and I had dinner at the Yankee Clipper. We both had lobster, which is strangely hard to find in Gloucester-by-the-sea.

When David-as-Bud strolled onstage to begin the show at a few minutes past eight, I was in the front row with an empty seat beside me; this time, Lesley was the victim of our bad weather, her flight delayed. Bud introduced himself to the audience with a song:

BUD: In the town of Spur, my momma had a baby (me)

In the shadow of a West Texas hill

My daddy sold his favorite milk-cow just to pay the doctor bill

Don't you know he had to pay the doctor bill

Which is exactly what my father had to do when I was born in Spur once upon a time.

The first act flew by. It was running more smoothly than I had dared to hope. But the second act seemed to have slowed down. And then something went wrong onstage. Two actors were supposed to walk on, but three stepped out instead. The two who belonged were Bud and the rich girl, Pam. The third, who didn't, was Aunt Corene. Not knowing what to do, she just stood there -- trying to play a floor lamp -- while Bud and Pam played their scene.

If we had been doing our show on Broadway, we would have had weeks of previews to fix our mistakes. But here we were in Gloucester without such a luxury. And there were the critics, ready or not. The Boston Globe's Ed Siegel wrote: "Ooee! Them folks in Gloucester sure know how to partyyy. Remember that movie Urban Cowboy . . . Well, they turned it into a good ol' musical type thing with a buncha songs from the country station and a whole lotta bellybuttons. Ooee!" and on like that. Some people thought Siegel was simply making fun of us. Some others thought he liked it. I have no idea what he was trying to say.

The Boston Herald said the show was "a lot of fun" but felt "the action slows to a crawl" in the second act. Well, they got that right. Our host, playwright Israel Horovitz, the artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Co., summed it up: "You got one demented and one good review."

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