Sweet Gregory, Part One – 1999

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Sweet Gregory first locks eyes with me on the Lower East Side, in a rehearsal hall. We both saw the same ad in the Village Voice, looking for actors. An oily, pompous young Israeli director is trying to do Salome, and we show up for an “audition.”  It’s a musty, dowdy room with commercial grade carpet hanging against the walls to drown out noise. Faintly, one can hear the sound of an opera hopeful next door, going up and down scales like a neurotic toy dog obsessed with her mistress’ spiral staircase. The hall, meager, smells like feet, like stale cracker, somehow like the glue on the back of a manilla envelope. A spent man occupies the front desk. He leers at the young woman checking in, and fingers the stains under his dingy, formerly white shirt. It’s a stretched out tank top. Everything about this man is stretched out, lived in, benignly gross. He is eating green beans from a can and watching a black and white television set. I arrive, furtive, nervous, tepid. I slow my gait and breathe. I walk into the studio.

Sweet Greg is there. Sweet Gregory is 20 years old, maybe. I’m 25.

(Sweet Gregory T. Angelo is a Log Cabin Republican now. He’s their president.)

He is cute, I notice. Cornsilk blond hair, like mine. Large eyes. Grey pools of mystery and compassion. I see it immediately about him, his kindness. We make mutual eyes at one another the way young gay men do. The knowing glance. A glint of pain in the eyes. Wry puzzlement.

Others show up too. There are maybe 12 of us, (13?), actor types. Everyone full, brimming, vacillating between cocksure bravado and crippling self doubt. This oscillation, these young artists, we. I size up the room and think to myself, this play won’t be high art, but I’ll probably do it anyhow. Sweet Gregory slips behind me as I walk the rehearsal space.

It feels like he is studying me.

A door bursts open into the room. The director. He is wearing an embroidered, elaborate ashram scarf and explains that we are the cast, there is no audition. What? Sweet Greg and I exchange baffled looks, thinking we would have to present monologues. Instead, the director treats the audition like a first rehearsal. Suspicious – uncomfortably game, we do some circle-share things, talk about ourselves and where we are from, who we are, currently, as artists, list inspirations. It’s kind of fun, in that hoary, sentimental way theater has of reminding the people in it that we are human beings who need one another.

I look at Sweet Greg, he looks back at me. I smirk.

Ilya suddenly ends the share circle, barking everyone up to their feet. I already don’t like how he shifts from sweet innocent organic director, to impatient little dictator. I mark it, the way I have taught myself to mark strange behavior.  But, we – young actors, brilliant new charlatans, frauds, miscreants, n’ere do wells – comply immediately. Okay, I think. “No more Intro to Acting?” I scoff, quietly, only so Sweet Greggie can hear me. Is it Oscar Wilde’s version? He said it was in the ad. Okay, maybe I’ll stay?

(I love banned literature, and Salome was banned.)

We are up, now, on our feet. He passes out scripts. Maybe, I think, we’ll read the play for the first time on our feet! (This isn’t done in professional settings). I’m excited.

Nope.

Ilya tosses his script over his shoulder. Another clever ruse! The script isn’t even important! Let’s just talk storytelling beats! Let’s break it down even further.

We are informed: he is going to cast on feeling and intuition. In order to do this, he needs us to play a game with him. He goes around quickly, whipping and whirling in his scarf – pointing at each of us. A tall woman is a giraffe. A bookish man, an owl. A more squat man typecast as a hippo. The look of anguish on his face is awful and raw and a tiny bit funny. I chastise myself for smirking. Ilya is quick to explain hippos are fierce warriors of the jungle. I shrug. I’m still game for this experience, but I’m sensing I had better not take this job. My professional brain turns off, and I tell myself to just have fun and see what happens.

Ilya comes to me and Sweet Gregory, pointing. You are a cat, he says! Salome is a cat! Sweet Gregory shrugs and grins, and Ilya says, you too, Sweet Gregory. You’re a cat too. Salome is two people! What? Just go with it, Salome is two people, and you boys will both play her! One light and one dark. I think this is an odd casting metaphor, since Sweet Gregory and I look nearly identical. His skin might be a bit more porcelain than mine. I always forget sunscreen, I think, but Ilya is jazzing us up again. Stirring us into a brewing creative frenzy. Now he’s less director and more wizard. Things get pretty fun. I forget myself for about 15 minutes, and live the joyous, unburdened life of a tigress. Sweet Gregory plays along. It’s like we’re dancing with nature. It’s pure.

Ilya stops us. He’s had a mood swing. Now he wants us to shout at one another, angry words. Imagine you had a love. Imagine that love was unrequited! Bring me the head of John the Baptist, Sweet Gregory and I are screaming at each other.

Under his breath, Greg passes me a whisper. He was the Elijah.

Stop it, I say to Sweet Gregory. I already know that.

Ilya now wants us to act out some beats of scene work, improvising. He wants us to imagine we are in an old cartoon. Act slapstick, he says, lightly preening his scarf. We find three absurd ways to ask for the head of Jokhanan.

None of this makes any fucking sense to me and Sweet Gregory.

But, I have something to focus on now, and I’ve lowered the stakes in the situation for myself. I feel good about this afternoon. Even the squalor of the Lower East Side, the tenements we are thick inside, even the pallor of Ilya, the nervous shuffle of neurotic, stressed-out young actors, hoping to be validated. Everyone trying to find a reason to justify leaving home and flying the coop. Even this awkward miserable moment has a ray of sunshine coming in from the dirt caked window. It hatches itself across the floor in a pattern of rectangles and the lint in the air catches the afternoon light. Sweet Gregory is there with me, we, two cats, prancing around, then slinking, intertwined. Me, in rapture. I didn’t sleep well, and I’m in a mild mania. There is an exquisite beauty and the veil between the physical and the metaphysical becomes extremely thin. We merge. I am Sweet Gregory. Sweet Gregory is me.

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We break for dinner. Ilya tells us to come back in half an hour and we will read the play. Sweet Gregory follows me out onto 12th and Avenue C. The melange of summer in New York hits me like sliding limestone sheeting down a quarry. America’s melting pot. Arguably, much more liberal than any American city. Arguably, less. Raw unfairness exposed and juxtaposed with pleasant sundresses, beggars, tin-types, subway rats. Hopeful youth trying to communicate – trying to chase a life devoted to beauty and truth. Trying to learn, beauty and truth are the same thing.

Where are we going for dinner, Sweet Gregory wants to know? We aren’t, I say. Why not? Because. Because why? Because, I’m not going back into that room. But, don’t you think it would be fun to be Salome? Yes. So why don’t you go back?

I’m walking us west, toward Union Station. Maybe, I’ll take the N train back to Long Island City, to work on some acrylics? I’ve tricked out my pad in purple and lavender, plus I’ve stripped the oak doors in my apartment. Opaque french-style patterned-glass hid for decades underneath years of paint, most of it lead, no doubt. My building was built before World War II, so I’m pretty proud of my nest, and I want to go home. Sweet Gregory tails behind me, peppering me with questions. I’m sweating now. We are at full New York pace and not looking back. I taste the sweat on my lips.

Don’t you think it’s a good play? Why do you think he’s a fraud? Isn’t any exposure good, at this point? Come on, Michael, just come back to rehearsal. Let’s give this a shot. You’re, what, a Lutheran?

Yes.

Well I’m a Catholic.

So?

I don’t know. I just wanted some common ground. Look, sure – it’s not the greatest play. But Oscar Wilde is brilliant. Don’t you want to do Oscar Wilde?

Look. This play isn’t going to happen. Did you see those other people?

I was focusing on you.

Sweet. You’re sweet, Gregory. Those other people aren’t going back there either. This guy doesn’t have a game plan. He’s just trying to find his footing. He probably has a rich family that will pay for him to come to NYC and experiment. He’s fine. He’s just learning his process. So am I. So are you.

But don’t you want to do a play with me? Sweet Gregory widens his eyes, glassy. He’s like a confused puppy dog. Yes, Greg, I want to do a play with you, but no, it’s not going to be this one. What if everyone comes back? You’re free to go see. He’s probably going to cut one of us anyway.

What?

He gave everyone an animal, but he gave us the same one. We look the same. We are the same “type.”

So?

So, go get your role. Go play Salome. I’m going to drink wine in my refinished apartment.

Sweet Gregory looks confused. He scratches his head. We walk a bit more and get deli knishes. He feels calmer. It’s bright in the deli, (and florescent lights don’t do anyone any favors ever), but we’re young, and this is New York, and he’s starting to let loose, chat, flirt. He’s from Connecticut, and his father is a Republican,  He talks about country clubs and Fairfield county. Boat shoes and Izod shirts and gin martinis with a twist.  He wants so badly for his father to recognize him as an actor. That’s why he wanted to do Salomé – at least partly!

We walk more, north. Up through Gramercy, and Kips Bay, crossing midtown to the dowdy part of the lower, upper east side. I wish the Roosevelt Island Tram was running, I say to him, as we start across the Queensborough bridge. The 59th Street Bridge Song running through my mind as Sweet, Sweet Gregory walks me home from an audition.

Probably five miles or so.

We find a ragged copy of the Voice in a trash can. I fish a quarter out of my pocket. Sweet Gregory looks nervous, tense. We can do this, I say. Let’s be brave. We find a NYNEX payphone. I dial the number Ilya placed in The Voice. This is Michael Martin, I explain. Sweet Gregory and I didn’t come back to the second part of your audition. We are grateful for your interest, but we’re too busy collaborating on original material to give time to the classics. We admire your pioneering spirit and hope you find the perfect felines for the job!

I hang up, flushed, giggling. Greg is smiling now. His big, kind, grey eyes a wellspring of hope, chance, possibility. I kiss him.

We’re back in Long Island City, on 36th Ave. and 30th Street. Sweet Gregory wants to come up for a glass of wine. Also, he has a favor to ask of me.

What’s that, Sweet, Sweet Gregory?

Would you take my virginity?

Gregory, I say, I’ll do you one better.

Yeah?

Yeah. It’s what, June? I’ll be your lover for the rest of the summer, until you go back to Boston.

What?

What.

Really?

Yeah. We’ll get this done for you, or we’ll at least have a great time trying.

Really?

Really.

Okay, deal, says Sweet Gregory. And heads up my stairs to have a glass of wine. I adjust the lights and put on music.

Later that night I’m humming next to Greg in bed. An old song about how I Am a Rock, I am an Island. You’re old fashioned, Gregory says. I’m petting him. Playing with cornsilk hair, looking at the moonlight illuminate his milky body. Gregory is dewy, and full of bliss. He teases me again. You’re an old-fashioned man!

I kiss him on the forehead. I know I am, Sweet Gregory. I know.

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