Tuesday, April 18, 2000

coulda been a contender

When John Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a resounding critique of the social inequities of his day. Considered his masterpiece, the novel follows a family of Oklahoma farmers as they travel to California in the midst of the Dust Bowl.

To say the book was controversial would be an understatement. A 1940 movie version of the book had to be filmed under a different title, and in his personal life Steinbeck became aware of plans to frame him for rape. Despite its controversy, The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's best-known book, and a theatrical adaptation of the play opened on Broadway under the direction of Frank Galati, who adapted the book to the stage.

Skip forward another 10 years, more than 60 years after Steinbeck first wrote his novel, to Neshanic Station. Out at their converted-schoolhouse theater, Somerset Valley Players is readying for a production of the play, which opens April 28. A few months ago, the company's audition notice caught my eye.

I don't have much stage experience. In fact, aside from a few church dramas I've acted in, and a class play when I was in second grade, my acting resume is restricted solely to being rejected from Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound when I was in college. But I've enjoyed the scraps of acting I've had so far.

I head west on Amwell Road to the theater for auditions at 7 p.m. March 5, just when Somerset Valley Players was getting ready to begin its production of Mr. Roberts. In the theater's basement, I meet Tony Adase, director of the upcoming production. Also ready to audition is Phil Hochman, a 72-year-old Plainfield resident.

Unlike me, Mr. Hochman has some actual experience. An amateur actor since the mid-1960s, he has performed in community theater productions throughout New Jersey, but also in New York. He also appeared as a movie extra in The Mirror Has Two Faces during Jeff Bridges' aborted speech.

"I'm at an age where there aren't many roles you can find," Mr. Hochman says.

He came out to audition for anything that might be available, including the roles of Pa Joad, the Rev. Jim Casey and Uncle John.

There are a few preliminaries to take care of, such as listing my contact information, experience (none) and my availability. My schedule makes impossible any rehearsal Tuesday, Wednesday or early Sunday afternoon, and my wife's schedule makes Thursday rehearsal impossible since one of us has to watch the baby.

Mr. Adase is friendly, and even though I'm sure he can tell I'm out of my element — this is a little more advanced than playing a Martian in second grade, you know — he immediately starts talking about the roles he can see me in.

First there's Connie, husband of Rosasharn Joad, who abandons his pregnant wife before the Joads even reach California. Then there's Al Joad, Tom's younger brother, a womanizer who loves to work with the insides of a car engine. Lastly, there's Floyd, one of the other migrant workers the Joads meet on their journey west.

Tonight, though, I'm not going to be any of those. Adase wants to get a feel for my ability, so he directs Hochman and myself toward Page 10 of the script, where the play begins.

As the opening scene, this exchange establishes the character of Tom Joad, freshly released on parole from jail where he has served four years for killing a man in a fight, and the Rev. Jim Casy, a revival preacher Tom knew when he was still a boy. It does more than that, though; it also sets the tone for the rest of the play as Tom starts to find his whole world uprooted because of the hard times the Dust Bowl has brought.

"I'd like you to read Tom, which is a role that's cast already, but it's a role that lets you read for a page or so," Mr. Adase tells me.

The Joads are from Oklahoma. In his novel, Steinbeck reflected their dialect with phonetic spellings like "Injun" and grammar an English teacher would flunk his students for. Galati maintains this with contractions like "hotter'n hell" and "goin'," but to speak the line properly, I have to use an accent. Stupid me, I forget, and Mr. Adase starts us over again after a moment.

As we get going again, I try to get the accent right. I (probably undeservedly) like to pride myself on doing respectable accents and voice imitations. The Oklahoma accent I'm imagining is slower than we speak in New Jersey, like in the South, but instead of a drawl, it has a twang.

"You seem to have a good cadence for this," Mr. Adase tells me after I've read a bit further. So apparently I'm doing all right at my Oklahoma accent, even though I've never been there. I make a mental note to thank my father, who grew up in Appalachia and thus can be said to have come from hillbilly territory.

Mr. Hochman and I do some more reading, then Mr. Adase has us skip to Page 55, where the Joads have arrived in Hooverville, one of the shanty towns that moves every few days as the dispossessed workers move about to avoid trouble with the law. Here Mr. Hochman reads Al and I read Floyd, and then we switch. Just for fun, I read Al's lines differently each time, in order to show that I can imagine different readings

"Okay, that's fine," Mr. Adase said after our third read.

Not long after comes the moment I hadn't been expecting. After Mr. Adase hears auditions from a few women hoping for parts in the play, and tells them he'll let them know in a few days if he has any speaking parts for them — there nearly always are roles without lines for crowd scenes, and The Grapes of Wrath has a few of those — he hands me a copy of the play.

"I'd like you take this home and look at the part of Floyd," he says. "I think you'd be good at Al, but I'm concerned about your schedule."

Without even knowing how it happened, suddenly I'm in.

Panic sets in about five seconds later. This is the real thing, and I don't mean Coca-Cola. This is an honest-to-goodness play. It has lines. Lots of them. When I was in second grade, I screwed up my big line and said, "And to think I was the cat who suggested we put the mouse on the bell!"

Mr. Hochman is reassuring on that score. "What I have found is you fill the time allotted to be off-book," he says. "If they tell you you have to be off-book the end of next week, you bust your ass and you get off-book."

I took Mr. Adase up on the role, took the book home, and started studying the role. Fate played me a foul turn, though, and I had to drop the play before rehearsals started because of several other large-level commitments that life sprang on me. But I know I can do this. My wife has played in Antigone: The Riot Act, and in Othello, and I want to take my turn at it.

There's an Academy Award waiting somewhere in my future, I can tell. I just need another break.