It's not the first place that comes to mind when you think of staged readings of new or little-known plays. But that's exactly what's happening. On a recent Thursday night, under the direction of Christian Middleton, four actors are rehearsing Sam Shepard's one-act play Action, written in 1973, around the time Shepard was collaborating with Patti Smith on plays such as Cowboy Mouth.
Although the audience will be admitted in less than ten minutes, Middleton is still tweaking a scene involving a turkey carcass and an American flag with his female actors, Leah Strahm and Joy Moeller, while his male actors, Tom Beaver and Chris Wright, are sipping beers and puffing on cigarettes.
"I'm actually more nervous for this than I would be for a full production, where I'd now be at a point where I'm comfortable with the character," Wright says. "It's more planned, and you know what to expect. Here, you rely on the writing a lot more. And yourself. It's a little more magical."
Middleton, whose theater background spans from New Orleans to New York and includes 2002's production of This Is Our Youth at the Madrid, says he credits the Empire Room's events coordinator, Hanh Trieu, for succumbing to his bohemian urges. His first effort there was a reading of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs script earlier this year, which drew enough people to inspire more readings.
Two weeks ago, Middleton's new script, Hollywood Face, was given a staged reading. He calls it "a dark comedy about what Hollywood does to pretty young people" and says it will be given a second public read at 9 p.m. on November 20.
"At cold readings like this, you pay attention to how the audience responds," he says. "They're a lot of fun for certain actors -- but not all -- who have the freedom to do anything they want with the script. It's fun for the actors but good for the writers. It helps me edit and arrange scenes, which I can't do until I hear it read aloud like this."
Middleton chose Action partly because Sam Shepard is so rarely staged in Kansas City. "It's one of his earliest plays, and one of the most absurd he's ever written," he says. "Shepard said it doesn't make sense at all. But once you see it, it makes perfect sense."
At twenty minutes after eight, almost twenty people take their seats. Middleton gives a short introduction of his cast, seated at a folding table cluttered with a few props and surrounded by orange traffic cones. (The pylons have nothing to do with the script but add their own edge of absurdity.) Soon the actors are entrenched in the dysfunction of a typical Shepard family -- though whether the characters are related or just coincidentally trapped in some existential hell remains a mystery.
There are more props than one would expect at a staged reading. Twice, Beaver's character, named Jeep, smashes a chair to splinters. And there are appropriate pregnant pauses that belie how little the piece has been rehearsed.
"Tonight is the first time I've seen the script," Wright tells me before the reading. During the reading, he's pretty much married to it but manages to evoke the rough edges of a character named Shooter.
Though Trieu says much of the Empire Room's December calendar is booked with private parties, she intends to host Middleton and his actors indefinitely. And Middleton says another script he wrote, Trust Fund Piggies, is ready for a future staged reading.
"We're theater people from all walks of life, who have day jobs or go to school but are talented people who want to stay with it," he says. "I'd like to set this up and have people run with it. It's not an exclusive club by any means."
Though it scrupulously avoids the tabloid rumors that the pair were once upon a time boyfriends, the satiric comedy isn't exactly a love letter, either.
Affleck is portrayed as just shy of an idiot savant, and Damon, who won bigger roles more quickly than his friend, is portrayed as a ruthless schemer. Its bark is sharper than its bite (it ends, after all, with the reminder that their work paid off big-time), but it has enough sting to keep its seventy minutes bubbling along. Who Levin might cast in the Damon role seems set in stone; Withers has an uncanny resemblance to local actor Missy Koonce.
On other New York stages, two big new musicals -- one in previews, one already at the half-price TKTS booth in Times Square -- share protagonists with AIDS and one great performance apiece. Taboo, which opens this week, is producer Rosie O'Donnell's rocky effort to bring the androgynous nightlife of 1982 London to the Great White Way. Culture Club's Boy George wrote the score and has top billing, playing the late fashion designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Newcomer Euan Morton plays Boy George, and it's quite odd to see them in scenes together. Morton, who played the role in London as well, is a major find. He has a gorgeous voice and a remarkable ability to ape Boy's cosmetically enhanced masculinity.
Hugh Jackman flirts mercilessly with the audience in The Boy From Oz, another musical in the star-in-the-making mold. He plays Peter Allen, the flamboyant Aussie who was outrageously queer but not so much so that he didn't generate hordes of female fans -- think Barry Manilow crossed with Liberace. His smartest career move was convincing Judy Garland that he was worthy of opening for her, then marrying her daughter, Liza. The show stinks but for Isabel Keating's eerie channeling of Garland; she is marvelous and painfully missed after she overdoses midway through the first act.
The latest revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is noteworthy more for Ned Beatty's Big Daddy and Margo Martindale's Big Momma, both powerful, than for Ashley Judd's wan Maggie. I don't think I've ever seen a great Maggie onstage, and for once, I heartily concur with New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who wrote that he could see the pencil marks on Judd's script. She's trying too hard at playing Maggie, the Southern belle who missed the ball.