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Murder on Cue
A Jocelyn O'Roarke Mystery
By Jane Dentinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Jane Dentinger
All rights reserved.
Jocelyn woke up in her least favorite way: she was hung over and, somewhere in her REM cycle, pissed off about some damn man when the phone rang.
The ringing of a phone before noon can be a very ugly sound to most people in the theatre—except for those exhausting overachievers who are out hustling diaper commercials while you're perusing the morning paper and nursing a cup of coffee.
Jocelyn dragged herself across the loft bed toward the offending phone. A dazed hand flopped over the edge of the bed and eventually the receiver reached her ear.
"Hello." It was a credit to Jocelyn's years of study that her voice came across rich and low at such an unspeakable hour.
"Hi, Jocelyn. It's Albert. How soon can you be at Studio 48 for an audition?"
A thought sharply cut through Jocelyn's REM cycle: "My twerp agent calls me three times a year and he has to do this to me at 9 A.M.?"
Jocelyn's voice, however, said, "Probably within the hour—sooner, if they're into necrophilia." (She had to get some of her irritation in.)
"It's Hatchell and Greenfeld and it's for their new show Term of Trial."
"Term of Trial? Albert, there's only one woman's role in that and it's the snappy lady lawyer who comes in in the last act and zaps it to the Supreme Court judge!"
"Yes, my dear, I know that."
"But, Albert, I'm twenty-nine. I'm too young."
"Of course you are. This is an understudy audition."
"Oh. And who am I—hypothetically—understudying?"
"Josh ... do me a favor, just go to the audition. Okay?" (The use of the nickname "Josh," used only by her intimates, told her that he was stonewalling in a big way.)
"Who is it, Albert?" (She never called him Al.)
There was a long pause. "It's Harriet Weldon."
"Albert, that dull, lowing cow?"
"I know she's not one of your favorite people ..."
"Is Wayne Newton one of your favorite singers?"
"It's too early for sarcasm, Jocelyn. Do you want to read for the understudy or not?"
Loathing him, she said, "Yes, you know I will. Eve Harrington always wins in the end, doesn't she ...? But how did Harriet Weldon get a hot role like that? Did her illustrious publishing family come up with another prestigious opus on the New York theatre by one of our great theatrical families?"
"Jocelyn, you are a fine talent with a vulgar and suspicious nature. Can you make it or not?"
"I'll be there."
What perturbed Jocelyn most was the fact that she was excited. She climbed out of bed and revived herself with a bath and breakfast. Then she applied a makeup that was subtle and sparing to take all the "ingenue" contours from her face.
Harriet Weldon—God! Jocelyn couldn't remember exactly which Players' Club Ladies' Dinner it was when she had turned to a fellow actress, while pointing somewhat drunkenly to Harriet, and said, "In faith, is that not the most tedious of artsy- fartsy actors in this great metropolis?"
"Josh, control yourself. She'll see you pointing. You just hate the fact that she's forever kneeling at the feet of the great and near great ... and she's obsequious as hell."
"No, that's not true." (No one can be as dignified as the near-drunk.) "I hate the fact that she makes the most boring choices possible onstage and gets away with it with the critics because she comes from a publishing family that they'd all give their left ball to have a contract with."
"Jocelyn, how well you mince words!"
"I'm cruel but fair, Annie. She's a theatrical Uriah Heep and you know it."
At this point Annie finally gave way.
"No, dear. She'd only be a Heep in a supporting role. In a major role, I'd bet she'd be a veritable Captain Queeg."
As if on cue, the sole progeny of Cyrus Weldon, co-founder of Weldon and Banning Press, wafted toward the two younger women and passed by them with a gracious smile and nod. Annie stifled a laugh in her gin and tonic while Jocelyn gazed happily after the retreating figure and said, "Harriet taught Nancy Reagan how to smile, you know."
Annie howled with delight and spilled half of her drink on Jocelyn's best silk blouse. Jocelyn, a survivor of twelve years of parochial schooling, saw this as what the nuns might call Instant Retribution.CHAPTER 2
Fifty minutes after Albert's call, Jocelyn emerged from a cab at Broadway and Forty-eighth Street into the sweltering heat of Indian summer and wished that September would start behaving properly. Three aspirin had not yet banished the hangover and her clothes felt sticky. She took an elevator to the fourth floor and signed in; an earnest young man in aviator glasses gave her a copy of the scene that she would be reading.
Five minutes later, she came up for air. The scene was stupendous; especially to Jocelyn, who was a true sucker for courtroom drama. And this was real Inherit the Wind material; it reeked with integrity (but not the smarmy kind) and was packed with the right dynamics. Of course the scene took place in a judge's chambers, not a courtroom, but it was all the better for the intimacy of the confrontation between the aging judge and the impassioned lady lawyer.
She was just envisioning what the character would be doing right before she comes into the chambers when they called her in to read.
The room was large and square and quite empty, except for a long table around which the director, author and several producer types were seated. During the formal introductions, she started mentally decorating the barren space with heavy drapes, a mahogany desk and various other "judicial" appointments. She'd just finished shaking hands with Charlie Martin, the director, a man in his early thirties with shaggy black hair and an abundance of facial hair that lent his schoolboy looks a wolfish air, when she came upon the playwright and froze in the middle of, "It's so nice to meet ..."
The name on the script had read Austin Frost, but sitting in front of Jocelyn, wearing a dark, shapeless suit, was none other than Austin Bracknell from college. Austin had been in the Drama Department a year ahead of her and they'd worked on countless shows together, even done the obligatory courting scene from The Taming of the Shrew for acting class which, given Austin's stork-like physique and Jocelyn's former pudginess, had lent a new dimension to the word "miscast."
A slow grin spread across her face. "Well, teeny-tiny world, ain't it, 'Mr. Frost'?"
"Getting itsier all the time, Miss O'Roarke."
Austin was smiling his particular Eeyore-smile that touched off a hundred memories for Jocelyn; one in particular had been the beginning of their friendship. Jocelyn had been a freshman doing yeoman work as prop mistress on a student production of Two for the Seesaw in which Austin had had the lead opposite an especially hellish leading lady of erratic Italian temperament. One of Jocelyn's jobs had been to supply the "letters" that Austin's character got from his wife and, to bolster him during his scenes with the diva, Jocelyn had taken to writing reams of graphic pornography involving the leading lady and enclosing them in the envelopes. This small act of kindness got Austin through the run and cemented their friendship.
"It's a pleasure to meet you in your new incarnation, Mr. Frost. What happened? Got tired of all the handbag jokes?"
"Oh, that too, yes. So many people can't do Edith Evans. But mostly it was the unreal expectation people had that someone named Bracknell had to write drawing-room comedies. Well, Josh, you've made my week. Do you like the scene?"
"Very much indeed," she said simply.
"Thought you might."
It fleetingly crossed Jocelyn's "vulgar and suspicious" mind that Albert Carnelli might have had less to do with arranging this reading than he'd led her to believe. Her train of murderous thought was broken by Charlie Martin's voice.
"You have a very nice resumé here, Jocelyn. Tell me, how old are you?"
"Ah, yes ... as you know, the character, Lindsay Harding, is a woman of about thirty-five ... but since this is an understudy audition ..."
She suppressed a wince. In her delight in seeing Austin, she'd forgotten that Harriet Weldon (who was farther away from thirty-five than she was) already was Lindsay. Martin stumbled on. "... and there is the small role of the law clerk in the first act ..."
Which is how it will be billed in the program, thought Jocelyn, "Lady Law Clerk." Charlie Martin was winding down.
"... so now that you know what the job entails, let's get down to the scene."
Setting up the scene with the actor who would be reading the judge, Jocelyn found her feelings to be at war with each other. Part of her thought, "Who wants this lousy job? Who wants to stand day after day in the wings and watch Harriet massacre this lovely role!"
And the part of her that didn't "think," that was pure actor, kept saying, "Lovely, lovely scene. Wonderful language. I bet I know just how Austin would like to see her first entrance—totally thrown away and unassuming. The audience should barely notice her until she begins to speak ..."
Jocelyn began the reading very low-key. Then, in the middle of the reading, something came over her—an unforeseen emotional imperative. This is not an uncommon experience for an actor; and what the smarter ones do is just keep breathing and let it take over.
Somewhere halfway through her speech to the judge, she knew she wasn't merely appealing for the rights of man; she was pleading for the life of a character, Lindsay Harding, who shouldn't be delivered into the hands of a mundane actress.
When she finished the scene, an uncomfortable but encouraging silence hung in the air. Austin just smirked and nodded as Jocelyn attempted to collect herself. Again Charlie Martin broke the silence.
"Uh ... very nice, Jocelyn." (This man was big on "nice.") "Casting should be decided by the end of this week."
Jocelyn had yet to fulfill her dream of the ideal audition, when, as soon as you finish your reading, they all throw down their scripts and say, "She's the only one in the world for this part!" But life is earnest, life is real. Instead they all said their goodbyes very nicely, especially Austin; Jocelyn made a mental note to meet him for drinks and pump him for dirt about the production.
But the most interesting feature of the whole situation didn't occur to Jocelyn until she was back in her apartment, smoking a joint to wind down from performance pressures. It was then, as she gazed at a Maxfield Parrish print, that an ancient shard of remembrance pierced her consciousness: Austin Frost, née Bracknell, abhorred Harriet Weldon.CHAPTER 3
Jocelyn recalled the incident vividly: it was during spring break in her senior year—Austin had moved to New York the previous year. She'd come into town and they'd made a date to meet at a matinee performance of an Off Broadway remounting of The Merchant of Venice that featured an old college acquaintance as Bassanio and a brittle Harriet Weldon as Portia and had very little else to recommend it.
Jocelyn and Austin consoled each other in the lobby during intermission. What Jocelyn always liked about Austin was that he reminded her of that needlepoint pillow that Alice Roosevelt had, which said: "If you haven't got anything nice to say ... come sit by me."
"By my troth, Jocelyn, my little body is aweary of this great Portia."
"Good sentences, and well pronounced."
"She has no imagination. Her life must be 'one long yawn.' God forbid that any play of mine be burdened by so plodding a performance."
Jocelyn, kinder in those days, said, "Now, Austin, calm down. Portia just may not be the right role for her. She might be splendid in other things."
Austin arched a scathingly eloquent eyebrow at her and Jocelyn felt herself begin to blush ... with good reason, as it turned out. Time and tide and Weldon and Banning Press proved Austin right
But then, what in blazes was Harriet Weldon doing in Austin's first Broadway play? She had to get hold of him and find out. Jocelyn leapt to her feet and began ransacking her apartment for old address books. She started chronologically backward from 1979 and was just observing what a high-fatality year she'd had in '77, judging from a list of men whose phone numbers had not been carried over into the '78 book, when the phone rang.
"Jocelyn, we have business to discuss." It was Albert Carnelli.
"They want me to come back and read again."
"They've offered you the job. The terms are quite good and ..."
"Albert, that's impossible—it's unheard of!"
"... and I don't think that you should let any small, personal aversion dissuade you from a fine opportun—"
Jocelyn never could deal with Albert when he was doing his self-righteous, Mother Superior spiel. "Alright. I'll do it, Albert"
"Wonderful! Come in tomorrow to sign the contract. You start rehearsal on Monday."
"Fine. See you around noon."
Not bothering to put the phone down, Jocelyn cleared the line and immediately began dialing Austin Frost's number.CHAPTER 4
September decided to become autumnal just in time for the eleven o'clock reading Term of Trial on Monday morning—for this Jocelyn was profoundly grateful. Even with the delicious breeze blowing into the rehearsal studio from four huge windows that looked out on West Forty-ninth Street, Jocelyn still felt somewhat hot under the collar. For one thing, she hadn't succeeded in getting hold of Austin over the weekend, and no Austin meant no inside dirt on the production; this made Jocelyn uncomfortable. Though she was hardly machiavellian, she had enough sense to know that it is always best to know which players hold what cards before the betting gets heavy.
And here it was eleven twenty-five and Austin still hadn't shown—the beast. This seemed most unlike him. Unless things had changed greatly from college days, when Austin always arrived at least twenty minutes early for every reading and you'd walk in and find him placing tiny pretzels in bowls around the room.
So there they all sat, in a more or less amiable silence, waiting for their absent playwright and—of course—Harriet Weldon to appear. Charlie Martin sat slumped in a chair, chewing on a pencil eraser. Martin had directed a highly successful nostalgia musical, Twinks, about two years ago, which was still, as they say, packing 'em in. But his last musical hadn't gone so smoothly and Term of Trial was to be his first "straight" play on Broadway.
As a matter of fact, thought Jocelyn, Charlie Martin is certainly not the obvious choice for director of this particular script. Though she herself had never worked with him before, she'd heard from colleagues that he was an imaginative, if sometimes erratic director. Still it seemed odd that he would take on Term of Trial as his first non-musical; rather like jumping from limericks to Sandburg.
Jocelyn's train of thought was broken by the imminent approach of the stage manager. Peter Morrance crossed the bare room in easy strides, the September breeze ruffling his jet-black curls and Hawaiian print shirt. Jocelyn had never worked with Peter before, but they were old acquaintances. Peter lived with a girlfriend of Jocelyn's, a stage manager named Carrie Ross whom Jocelyn had worked with Off Broadway, and Jocelyn couldn't have been more pleased to discover that Peter was running the show. From all reports, Peter Morrance could do for artistic temperaments what Adlai Stevenson did for the UN, and some premonition told her that such tact might well be a godsend in days to come. The Irish, even the half-Irish, tend to be psychic.
Peter plopped down in a chair beside Jocelyn and said, with an elfin smile, "I hate this part of rehearsals!"
"What, Peter, the waiting?"
"No, just the early days before things really get rolling. It usually takes a while into rehearsal before you get that 'pulling together' feeling, the precision, the excitement ..."
"The poker games."
Peter's smile broadened. "Ah, Josh, ever my psychic twin!"
"Have you found out who plays yet?"
"Max Bramling—the judge—he doesn't."
"Then he'll have trouble with the character. Every lawyer's a gambler in some respect."
"Josh, sometimes I just wish to God you'd shut up and become a director. Charlie Martin does play."
"You don't say? You and he old poker buddies?"
Excerpted from Murder on Cue by Jane Dentinger. Copyright © 1983 Jane Dentinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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