from the classical music murder mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto
I am not made for the symphony;
I need the theatre; I can do nothing without it.
Beatrice wasn't looking forward to attending The Night That Creeps. But she promised Ben and Karl that she'd come to the show.
Like most amateur productions, the play was good for a few moments, bad for a few moments, and indifferent through the rest. Its over-riding strength was in director Karl’s eliminating the one worst fault of people who don't make a living doing theatre. He made them pick up their damned cues.
If the actors had to stop for any reason, and Karl left no doubt that this "if" was strictly conditional, it had to be within their own lines. So at times the speed of the production gave the impression of something people who weren't related to the cast might actually pay money to see. There was still the occasional odd pause, when one of the cast members would look up in confusion, as if waking unexpectedly from a curious but unsatisfactory dream.
Because of Aunt Mattie's hearing, she, Bea, and Tom sat near the front. While waiting for the show to begin, Tom whispered unflattering but appropriate comments about the costumes, all of them the audience members'.
The play itself was by a noted murder mystery writer whose grasp of theatre was more tenuous than her novel-writing. Since tonight was the final night and a gala fund-raiser, someone routed her from a retirement home in upstate New York. And here she sat, beaming, in the right front row.
Unfortunately, the play itself wasn't very good, a far-fetched plot integrating badly with predictable characters. Overwritten speeches were made with other characters standing about and looking silly; fortunately, the audience was comprised of the author's diehard fans. Dialogue from older, better plays kept resurfacing, and Bea, not an ardent playgoer, idled away the evening trying to recall which films the best lines were from. She could place the more geriatric jokes, one from an old Bogart movie, one all the way back to Charles Dickens. In any case, she found her attention wandering when Ben wasn't on.
He had told her he had a small role. It wasn't that small.
It was the naturalness of his performance that shocked her.
She was surprised at herself, too. Rather than expressing an inner pleasure at his ability, she found it off-putting that this man, whom she'd been dating for over a year, behaved onstage in much the same way as he did when he was in the orchestra’s dressing rooms. And on the concert stage. And when talking to her over lunch.
And in bed.
The slight formality in his voice --and in the movement of his hands-- was something she had put down to his "foreign-ness," (as Mattie would, and did, put it.) This was offset by the natural ease of the rest of his body. She was equally disturbed that this onstage reproduction, as she saw it, was being flawlessly presented before the General Public as that of a man who might well be the play's mass murderer. More maddening, it was a believable performance being given in front of an audience that barely knew what believable acting was. And then, at one point, he picked up the telephone and, in order to lead the police astray, imitated an English accent beautifully.
Beatrice was now more confused than ever about someone she thought she knew.
The first act curtain fell with two bloody deaths unsolved.
During the intermission half the audience congregated in the foyer. There were props from previous productions shunted off into the dark corners -- the room wasn't very well lighted. Beatrice asked her aunt in a noncommittal tone of voice, "Well, who do you think did the dirty deed?"
"The murders in the play? Oh, that's easy," Mattie shrugged. "Ben."
Of course, Beatrice said to herself. She asked Mattie why.
"That's even easier. If this were a good play it wouldn't be him. But in bad plays, all murders are committed by foreigners." Mattie delivered this little homily as if the matter hardly concerned her, and went off to find the bathroom.
During the second act, Bea was angry at finding herself involved in the play, at one point biting her nails.
At the end, it was indeed Ben, despite his "small role," who was revealed as the murderer. Beatrice had looked forward to seeing Ben, for once in this sorry excuse of a play, do a bit of extraneous overacting, such as rubbing his hands, hysterically laughing, and screaming that yes, he poisoned the rich uncle, strangled the nun, and dropped the heroine's husband down a mineshaft.
Instead, Ben calmly leaned against an old dining-room table while the police reeled off a long line of accusations. (Well, you could hardly blame him. The set was so flimsy, if he leaned against a wall, he'd have ripped right through the other side.)
Ben nonchalantly took a cigarette from his silver case without a care in the world (this had been the Rich Uncle's cigarette-case in Act One), and seemed to barely listen to the police inspector's accusations. The moment he snapped the silver case shut, Ben noticed a speck of dust on one of his fingernails, and paused to rub it off while everyone onstage …waited.
He raised his hooded eyes, looking at the rest of them as if they barely qualified as bipeds. He gave a slight nod, and said in a hushed tone that nevertheless reached the back row of the theater:
"Your trouble, Inspector -- that of all of you here -- is that you seem to think that no one man can be above the law. But let me say that you are all beneath the law. You want to live; but I have had to survive, and there is a world of difference in those words that people of your sort cannot begin to understand. In your country one death is so tragic. Where I come from only my death is a tragedy. To me. To many others, in my country, it would be a blessing."
He continued, "If you want to understand what I have done and why, go to my country. Go for a month --not for a 'weekend,' as you call it. Live among us. Go without your thick wallets, your expensive shoes, your tour guides and guidebooks. See how long you can last. Be lost. As we are. And then you will understand what it is like to… survive."
Beatrice's eyebrows shot up a half-inch. She looked over to where the old playwright was sitting.
The old woman had a vaguely confused look on her face. Without taking her eyes off the stage, she seemed to be trying to turn up the volume of her hearing aid.
Beatrice looked over at Tom. His hands gripped the armrests, and his face was wrapped in dark concentration. She’d seen Tom’s face like this before, when he was examining photographs in his office of criminals on the loose.
There was a small party in the theatre's downstairs "lounge" after the show; the lounge resembled a church basement in its dismal off-whites and otherwise drab attempts at color.
Beatrice had cornered one of the older actors and, after the usual plethora of compliments, asked him about Ben's final speech.
"Yes! Very interesting, isn't it?" he said. "But it's not from this play. Ben says he added a paragraph from one of the author's other mysteries. He wouldn't tell us which one, though."
He leaned forward to Beatrice in a conspiratorial way, and she smelled the unhappy combination of mint mouthwash and bourbon on his breath. "Confidentially, I think he wrote it himself," he wheezed, "but it's one of the best bits in the play, so our director let it stand."
"I wonder why?" she whispered back.
The old actor shrugged. "It hardly matters. Ben acts as if he meant every word. And it fits the character." He gave Beatrice a playful but irritating slap on the shoulder. "And in the theatre, that's good enough for us!"
Beatrice looked over and saw Ben shyly accepting compliments from the more fulsome members of the audience. He looked tired, but she noticed his sideway glance towards her. She excused herself from the weaving older actor; as she approached him, he seemed to shrink slightly.
Both Ben and she had one thing in common: they were uncomfortable at accepting either praise or criticism. For years, Beatrice had made a habit of deflating compliments until one of the conductors she liked working with got fed up and hissed at her, "It's easier to just say 'Thank You' and leave it at that, my dear." She shortened his suggestion to just saying "Thanks"; and then passed this professional secret on to Ben.
"Well," she said, passing her coat onto her right arm, "you're an actor."
Ben had both hands stuffed in his pockets like a teenager and nodded --at the floor. "Thanks," he muttered.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.