When Robert, Patrick, and Irene met in New York City in the late 1970s, they were all determined to become actors, and it felt as if the city—or even the world—could be their oyster. Robert was the good-looking, ambitious one. Patrick was tall, ungainly, but naturally dramatic. And Irene, a former rodeo star out of Kansas, was the beautiful ingenue. They were young, talented, and passionate, and they soon became inseparable.
But their careers don’t all head in the same direction, and as their lives change course, friendships are tested—and they all face decisions that could undo them. A Company of Three features “a fascinating set of characters, who rely on and push each other away in equal measure, and their struggles are sure to engage readers, especially those interested in the cutthroat world of acting” (Booklist).
“O’Connor’s clean, affecting prose and her book’s moving conclusion will stay with readers long after the curtain drops.” —Publishers Weekly
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Patrick and I had been friends for a year when Irene appeared in our acting class, as if she had raced to New York expressly to meet us. There she finally sat, all luminous prettiness and hypnotic, smoky blue eyes. Someone sitting beside her must have cracked quite a joke, for with a toss of unruly brown hair she dissolved into laughter that shook her small frame, and rippled over the rows of students, infecting the others. She finished, then coughed. A rather raucous, I-don't-give-a-damn cough. Then she quieted, turning her exquisite attention again to the room before her. Bring it on, her face seemed to say. Hello world, I'm here! Patrick for one, and I for another, would never be the same. She had the ability to so pour herself into what she was doing — life, laughter, a role — that for me there was something awesome about her from the beginning.
Patrick and I were veterans. Acting had drawn us together. Irene, the last potent elixir, entangled us hopelessly.
Youth is the time when we are most easily influenced, and usually one or two people most deeply affect us, and, not to put too fine a point on it, set the tenor of our lives. But life is full then, teeming with people who come blazing in and then vanish, often as not. Still, it wasn't long before I knew that Irene and Patrick were my two people.
WE'D ALL COME TOGETHER in scene-study class, which took place once a week in the studios over Carnegie Hall. People tried out six and seven times to get in in those days — but I was fortunate. At my audition the notorious Andre Sadovsky had sat sneering, trimming his nails with a clipper as I gave Tom's farewell speech at the end of The Glass Menagerie; my best audition piece, or so I thought.
When I was finished he'd said, "Give me some Shakespeare."
I did Mercutio, and about ten lines in he interrupted. "Yes, yes. Oh please. Stop. You can come to the class but —" he looked down at the picture and résumé he had tossed on the floor. "Mr. Holt. You can come, but don't do anything. Understand?" I stood glued to my spot in amazement, expecting that he would have more to say. He whispered to the beautiful blonde in a tiny tube top who sat at his side.
Andre reclined in three folding chairs pushed together to form a chaise lounge. His lank hair was gray, his face swarthy, his eyes like two chips of coal pressed into dough. Not innately prepossessing.
"Mr. Holt?" He'd looked up. His voice was a high nasal whine. "Did you have a question?" I'd been dismissed. "Samantha will tell you when the class begins," he said as I left. The lovely Samantha floated out of the room behind me. "That was wonderful work." She gave me her hand and I shook it. "You're only the second person he chose today." Patrick had gone in before me and had already left.
"I thought he hated me," I said.
"No, he just hates auditions. He acted too, years ago."
"No, Brooklyn." She winked, and sat down to fill out a form.
"What did he mean when he said I shouldn't do anything?"
"Oh. Don't push. Just say the words."
My heart sank. It had happened again, I had pushed, I was overacting.
My experience in the class, though, was better than what I'd expected after my audition that day. Andre liked me. He liked Patrick, and we found ourselves in the enviable position of protÃ(c)gÃ(c)s; meaning that Andre watched us closely, took our work seriously, and brought out, I think, what was best in our talents. Others were not so lucky.
"Darling," he said to a sweet, earnest woman named Maryann Bosco from Memphis, who always wore hats, "it is simple, it is natural, you want an award? It's boring." He crossed his arms and leaned forward. He never raised his voice. "Nothing gets through your head. Here in this class I tell you and tell you what isn't enough. This is the theater, yes? You are doing a scene from a play. In the movies you can maybe be boring because they have got those explosions around you, not here. Even life, at least my life —" here he cast a droll look at the class "— is not so boring as that. Sit down, please. Go back to Lee Strasberg."
"Mr. Holt," Andre said, the first day I worked in his class. "Do you tend to be a repressed, conservative person?"
He'd thrown me again. "No." I could feel myself color.
"You wouldn't see it," he responded, and to my dismay people laughed. "With you there is an abundance. You don't need to try. Do it again without trying."
It went better, of course.
"What did you mean when you said I was repressed?"
He shrugged. "Actors who push often are. They've been saving it all for the stage. Don't look so distressed. Your talent is fine."
I lived in a fourth-floor apartment in a crumbling brownstone on West Forty- sixth, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The street stank in the summer, and as I walked home from the restaurant on the East Side where I worked, it got hotter and hotter, until I felt I was entering an oven; I understood, firsthand, the origin of the name Hell's Kitchen. But I loved the apartment, its proximity to the theater district, to Restaurant Row — even though, in those days, I couldn't afford to eat there, with the possible exception of Joe Allen on special occasions — and to the strange sign I saw by a doorway just several blocks away: THE ACTOR'S CHAPEL. I never entered the place, but as I trudged home after auditions, the sight of it comforted me in an unacknowledged, peripheral way.
It was a steep walk up the stairs to my apartment, steps listing away from the wall and turning up in a zigzagging spiral from floor to floor. Inside it was cool, from the rasping air conditioner in the living-room window that I kept on full blast — my haven: cheap wood-paneled walls, orange-shag carpeting, the dresser and the door to the bedroom closet painted in blinding shades of bright blue and green. It had come furnished, and it was my own. There were roaches, and the kitchen swarmed with them before I finally called the super.
On the heels of our first year in Andre's class, Patrick and I had been sure that we would be invited to Crispins, Andre's theater, to work for the summer. But we were not. Patrick went away to work at a dreary resort in Rhode Island, and I stayed in the city, disappointed by the abysmal production of a Neil Simon play I'd been cast in that May. We performed the play at a Ramada Inn in East Orange, New Jersey.
One matinee performance fell on the Fourth of July, this being the bicentennial year. Afterward I took the train home, rode the subway two stops to Times Square and found it completely deserted, everyone gone, evidently, to some version somewhere of the day's festivities.
The summer of that year had its moments. But with the resumption of Andre's class in mid-September, I began the graduate directing program at NYU. I'd done this as much for my father as for myself. He'd never liked the idea of my being an actor. As the son of an academic — he was a professor at Columbia — I had learned that the logical thing to do if you felt stalled was to go to graduate school.
Patrick had gone to emcee a weekly seaside variety show and spent most of his time washing dishes and restocking liquor in the cantina. When he came back he said he would never, ever return to Rhode Island.
Patrick was tall, but for an actor he was inordinately tall, six-foot-seven. And, factually, he was unattractive, although at first sight, awaiting our Andre auditions, he'd looked to me like a tall Fred Astaire: He leaned with one shoulder against a blank wall, head downward, studying a script. I studied him as I usually studied my competition, and he felt my eyes and looked up. I saw a ruddy, peeled- looking face, a thicket of sand-colored hair erect as a brush; his head in total formed the shape of a hatchet or a wedge; his eyes were a shocking cornflower blue. Then he spoke: "Gotta match?" And animate, reaching into his pocket and crossing to me, he changed, became fluid, dashing — gorgeous, I had to admit.
Patrick took up and enthused over everything Andre said. He had begun in the musical theater and "real" acting was new and mysterious for him. He read ceaselessly, he watched people everywhere, making notes in a spiral-bound notebook he kept in his pocket, and if he were up for a part, he would be the person in his own life as preparation, dressing like a dandy or a colonel, speaking in a Latvian accent to friends on the phone. But alas, despite his determination and commitment, he was not very good.
What Andre saw in Patrick was a presence, a style that was odd, but riveting. You may have thought his work unbelievable, arch, straightforward to a degree that verged on the bizarre — but you couldn't stop watching him. Often, when Patrick was up in a scene Andre would laugh at the end, but delightedly: "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, that was terrible, Patrick. What is this you have done?" But he'd say this with such tremendous enjoyment.
In Patrick's first incarnation as a dancer he'd been a huge success. He'd arrived in the city from Boston at the age of eighteen, and in three years he was featured in two Broadway shows, a national tour, and several stock and industrial shows. Then he'd wrecked his right knee, ending his dancing career. After that he left the city for a while, coming back just a week before the day I met him at the audition. He never said much about his old life. Very few of his friends were friends from that life — there was Maria Valdez, a flashy woman I'd met once or twice, and Benton, who had no last name, a shadowy figure Patrick mentioned occasionally, mostly without explanation, and so elliptically that at first I thought Benton was a place.
How Patrick suffered over losing jobs. He would take to his bed for a few days or a week, depending on the magnitude of his disappointment. On the day in October when Irene was first scheduled to go up in class, Patrick was, again, holed up in his apartment. I'd been calling him for days without getting any answer and I stopped by to see him that afternoon. I leaned on the buzzer outside of his building and waited.
I stepped back, ready to leave, when I heard a thin voice: "Who is it?"
"Robert." I heard him sigh. "Come up then."
He lived in an attractive four-story brownstone in the Seventies on the Upper West Side, quiet by city standards, genteel, smelling of gardens if the wind was right. That day it was. We sat out on his fire escape overlooking the tangles of growth at the back of the building: his neighbors with garden apartments had created a veritable jungle, and it sparkled with sun.
He leaned back and lit a Gauloise. "I really can't go out, I have a touch of sore throat." He wore a red flannel plaid bathrobe; in winter he wore brown leather slippers, the kind grandfathers wear.
"Well, you'll want to come to class," I said. "The cowgirl is up today."
"Irene Jane?" Tempted. "Well, I can't."
"If you were sick, you wouldn't be smoking."
"You know that's not so, I never stop smoking. I have no restraint," he said, blowing fumes of blue smoke through his mouth and nose. He snatched the newspaper I was holding and scanned the front page.
"You can't have it." He never bought a paper of his own; he liked to steal mine. "Come on, Patrick. Get dressed."
"Oh my God." He had opened the paper. "Chairman Mao died."
"Weeks ago. You know who she's stuck with?" I asked, resolute.
"Who?" he said, rustling pages.
"Irene Jane," he corrected.
"She's doing a scene with Clarence."
"She is not. I can't conceive of what scene it could be," he said, tongue in cheek, and setting the paper down, started to rise. As he did, I saw the white scars on his knee, hundreds of tiny raised scorings that circled the joint so it looked as though someone had sewn it back on.
"I'm weak," he called, going inside to get dressed. "If we walk, we'll have to walk slow."
I had called Irene the cowgirl because she always wore cowboy boots: thus far I had seen her in three different pairs. Patrick was shocked by her name, Irene Jane Walpers. "Walpers?" he whispered after Andre introduced her. "Tell me he didn't say Walpers." She sat in the back of the class, taking copious notes, and although I'd been hoping to strike up a conversation with her, she managed to slip in every time, just as class began, and then slip out the minute it ended.
We walked over to Broadway, then south through Columbus Circle. Patrick had brought my newspaper. "Why don't you just buy one?" I said.
But his attention had drifted up to the sky. "Don't you love New York on a crisp autumn day?"
CLASS MET FROM three to six on Mondays. When we arrived Clarence was setting up his props: a metal frame suspending a punching bag, gloves, two benches, a jump rope, and a stack of white towels. Only the towels were a new addition. His brown head was as smooth as his face, freshly shaved for the scene. He was stripped to his Everlast trunks, his white socks, his black high-top sneakers.
A shy, gracious man from Jamaica, Clarence was obsessed with The Great White Hope, a Pulitzer prize-winning play about the doomed life of Jack Johnson, heavyweight champ of 1908. He had been in the class since the previous January, and whenever he was up he did the same scene from this play. This would be the fourth time. No one understood why Andre let him do it over and over, without much progress that any of us could see.
"Clarence," Andre said, months prior to Irene's debut. "There is someone with you in the scene. Ellie is there."
"Yes," Clarence replied. "Jack ignores her. Jack's working out."
"What you do is work out. What she does is attempt to get you to stop."
"Isn't there anything she does that distracts you?" Andre asked. "You get angry at her, yes?"
"But Jack keeps working out."
"But obviously, Clarence, other things are going on. At least you have to stop for a bit, just to get her to leave, so that you can go back to working out."
Clarence nodded, and then next time would do the scene exactly the same. I had heard from Samantha that his audition for the class was extraordinary — "The best audition," she told me, "I've seen." Perhaps he had been the victim of the idea that playing a scene was all about sticking to your initial intention.
Two vultures, Patrick and I, took front-row seats. Clarence jumped rope; he liked to break a nice sweat before the scene started. Irene was not yet manifest.
Andre appeared wearing his standard Brooks Brothers jacket draped over his shoulders, white dress shirt, gray slacks. He absorbed the sight of Clarence and his gym, and took his seat farthest from the door, by the grimy windows overlooking Seventh Avenue.
"Clarence," he said. The rope stopped with a swish. "Keep in mind, please, at the end of this scene your wife is in such despair she goes out and throws herself down a well. Understand?"
"Yes, sir." Clarence looked confident.
"Irene is ready?" Clarence went and stuck his head out the door, came back and said, "Scene," then put on his gloves and pounded the bag. I was admiring his footwork when Irene came in.
She wore round spectacles and a shabby gray dress, and today she seemed frail, even though I had assessed her figure as slender but strong. She wasn't very tall. After a pause, she began to speak and Clarence ignored her, belching out his lines between slams at the bag. She kept speaking to him, but without much insistence, seeming too tired for the urgency that what she was saying demanded. It put a new, interesting twist on the scene. Nonetheless, Clarence just boxed. Irene talked almost as if she were talking to herself, as Clarence took off the gloves and went for the jump rope. He stopped to tell her he wanted her to leave, not just for now, but for good. And then, suddenly, she hauled back her arm and slapped him with a force you couldn't imagine she had. She's fearless, I thought, and I realized that everything she'd been doing had led to this gesture. It was both unexpected and absolutely right. I looked over at Andre. His palms were pressed to his cheeks in his pose of concentration. Clarence was stunned, and then superb for the remainder of the scene.
"Goddamnit," I whispered to Patrick, "she cracked it."
Andre applauded, so everybody did.
"And now we can put the scene to bed? Robert, go get Irene before we have lost her to the well."
She was sitting on the floor in the hallway, her arms wrapped around her bent knees. "That guy's gonna kill me," she said.
"Who, Clarence? Oh no, he's ecstatic."
"He is?" I detected a stronger twang in her speech than I'd heard in the work. It was charming. Her eyes were silvery: they were dry.
She picked up her boots, they were black ones that night, and followed me back in. How could I casually invite her for coffee after class?
I needn't have worried; Patrick took care of that.
We'd seen her go into the rest room to change. We both waited outside.
"Are you waiting for Irene?" I said.
"Of course," he answered, "aren't you?"
"Let's do a scene with her," he said. "She's smashing."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Company of Three"
Copyright © 2003 Varley O'Connor.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There is mystery that surrounds Company of Three. At face value it is the story of three actors struggling to see their name in lights on Broadway. New york City in the 1970s is a hub for creative activity such as dance and the theater and Robert, Patrick and Irene stand in the spotlight, ready as ever for their close ups. Company of Three follows their successes, their failures, their struggles. It examines their friendships and love affairs and what they mean to one another. Ultimately, it is the story of how far they would go for their careers and for each other.
I thrust up under you