Mark Manning gave up a career as a prominent journalist at a major daily newspaper in Chicago to take over as the owner and publisher of the Dumont Daily Register, the daily newspaper in a small Wisconsin town. Living there with his lover, architect Neil Waite, and his nephew and ward Thad Quatrain, Mark's life in Dumont is usually quiet.
At the moment, the biggest news is the forthcoming production of a new play by the local community theater group. Two local teenage boys are alternating in the lead role - one is Jason Thrush, a gregarious and somewhat egotistical athlete, and the other is Thad Quatrain. When Jason and Thad have a verbal clash during rehearsal, it is quickly forgotten by almost everyone involved. But when Jason turns up dead on opening night - leaving Thad to take over the lead role - the local gossip turns against Thad. Jason's death is soon proved to be murder and, even though he has not been charged, opinion about town has all but convicted Thad of the crime.
Sure that Thad is innocent, Mark, with the help of his lover and friends, is determined to publicly clear Thad's name. But that means finding out exactly what happened to Jason Thrush on that fatal day and Manning's investigation may place him and his loved ones in mortal danger.
About the Author
Michael Craft is the author of several novels, three of which were honored as national finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. Craft and his partner reside in Wisconsin, which is the setting for the Mark Manning novels. They have a second home in the Palm Springs area of California, which provides the backdrop for Craft's series featuring theater director Claire Gray.
Read an Excerpt
Dumont Players' new production should
prove 'utterly mah-velous'
By GLEE SAVAGE
Trends Editor, Dumont Daily Register
Aug. 1, DUMONT WIExcitement abounds among the Dumont Players Guild as the amateur theater company prepares to mount the premiere production of Teen Play. The original script was written by local radio personality Denny Diggins, who also directs the show. Opening night is this Friday, curtain at 8:00 P.M., with six performances running over two weekends at the historic Dumont Playhouse.
The play's plot is highly self-reflective, centering on a conflict between two teenage actors involved in the production of an original play, itself titled Teen Play. Said Diggins, "It's an unusual conceit, one truly meant to challenge its audience. What I intend to deliver," he added in a tone well known to longtime radio listeners, "is an utterly mah-velous evening of theater."
The roles of both playwright and director are new to the flamboyant Diggins, who has aired the often controversial Denny Diggins' Dumont Digest for nearly 20 years. Asked about the motivation to try his hand at theater, he explained simply, "It was time to broaden my oeuvre."
The young cast of Teen Play is headlined by two accomplished high school actors. Jason Thrush, 17, will enter his senior year at Unity High this fall with three years of acting experience in eight productions. Thad Quatrain, also 17, attends Dumont Central, where the acting bug bit him just this past year. Both young men are double-cast in the production, playing the leading role of Ryan in alternating performances. Jason Thrush will star as Ryan in Friday night's premiere.
This reporter had the opportunity to watch a recent rehearsal at the Dumont Playhouse, downtown on First Avenue. Without telling too much, suffice it to say that the two-act play does deliver on its author's promise. Friday night, petty rivalries will set the stage for murder when the baring of dark secrets leads to grim revenge. Don't miss it.
Wednesday, August 1
RYAN. Turn, crossing to Down Left window. (flippantly) Not that it really matters, Dawson. Not tonight. It's only community theater. Pick up football from desk.
DAWSON. Rise, following. (from behind) And what's that supposed to mean?
RYAN. Turn to him. Pause. It means, there's a world beyond Podunk. Gesture toward dark sky outside of window. There are bigger things ahead. Cross to Center, twiddling football in hands. (thinking aloud) For some of us.
DAWSON. (laughing) Lighten up, Ryan. We're kids, for God's sake. And I thought we were friends. This isn't a contest.
RYAN. Everything's a contest, pal. Throw football to Dawson, hard.
DAWSON. Fumble ball. Cross one step toward Center. No, Ryan. It's a play, not a contest. We open soon, and we're in it together, all of us. We're a team.
RYAN. Good teams win. And winning teams have winning players. (smugly) Some are better than others.
DAWSON. Step nearer. (getting angry) Okay, "pal." You're better than the rest of usyou're the best. Step face-to-face. Is that what you need to hear?
RYAN. (grunting) Not from you. Shove Dawson, palms to chest.
DAWSON. (with resolve) Watch it. It's not cool to treat a friend that way. And if that friend happens to be your understudywell, don't be stupid.
RYAN. (slyly, quietly) Don't you be stupid, Dawson. I know all about that "little incident" over spring break. Poke Dawson's chest with finger. Not something we'd care to spread around, right?
DAWSON. (hatefully) Why, you ... Lunge at Ryan.
RYAN. Trip Dawson. Don't make me laugh, you pathetic ... Tumble together to the floor.
Sound Cue 7: Desk phone rings, continues throughout.)
RYAN AND DAWSON. Tussle. Ad-lib epithets. Roll together against Right Center end table, upsetting lamp. After lamp CRASHES:
(Lighting Cue 11: Room partially darkens.)
RYAN. Pin Dawson to floor. Tonight, or opening night, or any night, don't ever forget this. Don't ever forget who's on top. Tense pause. Release Dawson.
DAWSON. Rise, brushing self with hands. Cross to Up Right doorway. Pause, looking back. (bitterly) Keep it up, Ryan, and you may not live till opening night. Remember, I'll be waiting in the wings. Exit.
RYAN. Laugh, sprawling on floor, as:
(Lighting Cue 12: Quick fade to black.)
(Sound Cue 8: Phone rings LOUD one last time in darkness. Then silence.)
Mah-velous!" proclaimed Denny Diggins, clapping, breaking the theatrical spell. Rising from the dim pool of light that spilled from his makeshift director's table in the fifth row of seats, he called to the control booth, "Houselights, please!" As he ambled to the center aisle, the rest of the cast and crew gathered near the front of the stage, applauding the two young actors for their performance of the fight scene that concluded act one.
Though the boys had made the scene look easy and natural, I knew that it had taken weeks of workpart of June and all of Julyevery movement carefully choreographed and rehearsed. I gladly added to the applause. Dawson, the kid who made the final threat, was played by Thad Quatrain, my seventeen-year-old ward. Two winters ago, when I moved to Wisconsin as the new owner and publisher of the Dumont Daily Register, Thad's mother, a wealthy cousin of mine, died unexpectedly, leaving Thad in my care. Technically, he and I are second cousins, but we think of each other as nephew and uncle. In our day-to-day lives, we dispense with the specifics of kinship and simply call each other Thad and Mark.
My full name, by the way, is Mark Quatrain Manning. I'm forty-three, a reporter by training who made waves in Chicago as an investigative journalist. My acclaim stemmed from a succession of high-profile stories that I reported for the prestigious Chicago Journal. What's more, I am gaya distinction that I refused to hide when I myself discovered it nearly four years ago, at the height of my career and at the brink of middle age.
"Mark! Nell!" said Thad as he leapt from the stage and bounded up the aisle. I was sitting in the back row of seats with Neil Waite, a thirty-five-year-old architect, the man in my life. Rising from our seats in the otherwise empty auditorium, I noted the curious and distinct smells of the historic theater: dust and mold, the fresh lumber and paint of the newly finished set, an electrical transformer somewhere that should have been scrapped long ago. "Well," Thad asked through a grin as he approached us, "what'd you think?"
Neil was first into the aisle and swept Thad into a big sloppy hug. "It really pulled together, didn't it? And you were worried! The scene looked great, Thad."
"Thanks!" Then Thad suddenly backed out of their hug. "Sorry, NeilI didn't mean to stink you up. I'm sweating like crazy."
We all were. For Thad, the physical demands of the fight scene had soaked him with perspiration, but for the rest of us, the heat alone was sufficient to keep us damp and feverish. August in central Wisconsin could be brutal, and though the old theater was air-conditioned, the amateur troupe could barely afford to run the lights. For rehearsals, the auditorium was cooled to a level just shy of tolerable.
My turn to hug the kid. "Hey, don't sweat the sweatwe won't melt." And I clapped my arms around him, a gesture that echoed Nell's. "You're really getting good, Thad. We're proud of you. Thanks for inviting us tonight."
I'd never seen him rehearse, and indeed, the whole theater thing was something of a mystery to me. Less than a year ago, when Thad had begun his junior year at Dumont Central High, he was still adjusting to his new life with "two dads," showing little interest in school. He needed some sort of involvement to snap him out of an adolescent funk that sometimes had a rebellious edge, so Neil encouraged him to audition for a play. Thad took Neil's advice and discovered talents that had lain dormant. The bug, as they say, bit, and he appeared in all three plays at school that year, each time mastering more challenging roles. Come summer, he was loath to let the long, hot months pass without honing his newfound craft. Again it was Neil who suggested the remedycommunity theater. And it was Neil, throughout, who coached Thad in the lore and taboos of the art of Thespis; it was Neil who spent patient hours helping Thad memorize lines; it was Neil who knew exactly how to quell Thad's doubts and butterflies. I could only look on with awed amusement as Neil helped effectuate this transformation of our inherited child, once sullen, now so gung ho.
So when Thad invited Neil and me to attend his dress rehearsal that night, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to get a firsthand look at this magic, this discipline found so addictive by those who "tread the boards." What I saw, though, was simply workrigorous workand its rewards seemed elusive at best that muggy night. But I could tell from Thad's sprightly banter, from the energy I felt through his touch, that his mind's eye had locked on a future brimming with the boundless promise known only to youth.
(Never could I have guessed that tragedy was brewing.)
"Now remember," he was saying, "on Saturday we switch roles. I'll star as Ryan, with Jason playing the smaller role of Dawson."
"Which means," said Neil, "you both have to learn the other half of the fight."
"We've got it nailed," Thad assured us. "Jason and I rehearsed the reverse casting last night, and it was every bit as good as tonight. In fact," he added with a nudge, "better," meaning, of course, that he preferred playing the leading role.
"People! People!" called Denny Diggins from the front of the stage, clapping for attention, sounding downright schoolmarmish. "Listen up. Act one looked fabulous tonight. I have a few notes, as usual"he brandished his clipboard"but I'll save those for the end. Take a fifteen-minute break, relax, try to cool off, then onward with act two. Remember, people: focus. We've got a great show on our hands." Hopping from the edge of the stage, looking decidedly unathletic, even foppish, Denny signaled that he needed to talk with someone nearby, a nice-looking man who was not in the casta crew member, I presumed.
Some of the company wandered to the lobby in search of soda. Others gathered in clumps of conversation or lent a hand at a long worktable where volunteers folded and collated program books. A Latino boy sat by himself in a front-row seat, reviewing his script. Jason Thrush, Thad's colead, who had just played Ryan in the fight scene, remained center stage, sitting on the floor, indiscreetly blowing his nose into a wadded handkerchief while chatting with some other kids who had joined him there. Among them were Kwynn Wyman, a classmate and friend of Thad's whom I'd met at the house, and another girl, conspicuously pretty (the word nubile sprang to mind), whose eyes suggested an interest in Jason that went beyond the teamlike camaraderie of fellow cast members.
A few observations about Jason Thrush are in order. Though I'd heard the name often during the rehearsal period of Teen Play, I'd never seen him till that night, and then from the back of the auditorium. I knew that he was Thad's age, seventeen, and on the basis of a short feature that had appeared in that morning's Register, I knew that he'd been involved with theater a few years longer than Thad. Jason's surname was familiara local industry bore the name Thrush, so I assumed his family to be moneyed. But because he and Thad went to different schools, I knew nothing more about him.
I did know this: physically, Jason Thrush was a knockout. Face, body, bearing, you name ithe was classically handsome and athletically butch, though not brutishly muscular, lacking only a smile, a real smile. Something about him seemed hard or distant. Perhaps he was distracted by the summer cold he was nursing. More likely, he was just stuck-up, looking down with disdain upon a world less beautiful and privileged than himself.
Objectively, Jason was better looking than Thad. Don't get me wrong. Almost anyone would agree that Thad too was an attractive young manhe'd had his own share of luck in the gene pool. What's more, he'd grown out of his adolescent gawkiness, and his theatrical pursuits had refined both his movement and his speech. He was pleasant, intelligent, and hardworking.
On a purely cosmetic or superficial level, though, Jason Thrush took the prize, hands down, and I could understand why he'd been chosen to play the starring role in Friday's premiere. I didn't know if the play's director had justified this decision based on Jason's greater acting experience, or if lots had been drawn, or if coins were tossed. Regardless of how the casting was arrived at, it made sense to mein spite of my prejudices resting loyally with Thad, in spite of Thad's gut-deep desire to star in the opening, now two nights away.
"Hey," said Thad, "since we've got a few minutes, I want you to meet some people." He started leading us down the aisle toward the activity near the stage.
"Are you sure?" asked Neil, laughing. "We're just a couple of old farts."
I knew what he was really asking: Wasn't Thad embarrassed to have his teenage friends see him dragging around his "parents," parents who happened to be a same-sex couple? Such a setup was pretty rare anywhere. In heartland Dumont, it was uniqueand a tad controversial.
Thad stopped in his tracks, turning back to us. "Are you kidding?" His tone was reprimanding, but the emotion underlying it was pure affection. "I enjoy showing you off. Come on." And he continued down the aisle.
Neil and I followed, sharing a melting glance that confirmed his knees had weakened, as mine had. He squeezed my shoulder and whispered into my ear, "How'd we ever get so lucky?"
I shrugged. I laughed. How else could I answer?
"Mr. Diggins?" said Thad, approaching his director. "You've met my family, haven't you? Mark Manning and Neil Waite."
Denny Diggins turned from the conversation he had just finished with the good-looking crew guy. Denny's big smile was forced and toothy; the too deep chestnut hue of his hair vainly covered gray. "Of course, Thad. So very good to see you gentlemen again." He reached to shake our hands limply, greeting us in turn: "Neil. Mahk." Though Wisconsin-born forty-some years ago, closer to fifty, he claimed to have studied abroad at some point in his youth (a little research of my own had revealed that college took him no farther than Madison), and he spoke with an affected, vaguely Continental accent. So I was "Mahk."
Neil had encountered Denny from time to time that summer, recruited into parental tasks of running various production errands, so they were chummy enough. My own history with Denny, though, stretched back a few months further and was considerably less cordial.
His radio program, Denny Diggins' Dumont Digest, was something of a local institution. The afternoon interviews drew a respectable audience, leading Denny to claim bragging rights as the town's only other dependable news sourcethe primary source being the Dumont Daily Register. Denny never missed an on-air opportunity to trash my paper, at times questioning my journalistic integrity. His pompous and outlandish claims of superior professional standards were nothing short of libelous. Indeed, I had considered suing this self-inflated fruitcake more than once. On the calming advice of a lawyer friend, I had done nothing, realizing that Denny would relish a juicy, public controversy with me. My best response was no response. Why dignify his nonsense by wasting my time with it?
This decidedly tense relationship would change, though, when Denny wrote his play and convinced the Dumont Players Guild to mount its premiere production, with Denny himself as director. His casting needs included two strong teenage leads. Imagine his dismay when auditions revealed that one of the most accomplished young actors in town was Thad Quatrain, foster child of the dreaded Mahk Manning. Denny needed Thad to help assure the success of his debut as a playwright, and naturally, I wanted Thad to enjoy the opportunity and excel at it. So Denny and I entered a period of strained truce. Thad was largely unaware of the bad blood between Denny and me, and in fairness, Denny was good to Thad, whose talents continued to blossom, even under the tutelage of an eccentric director.
Neil was saying, "We can't wait for this weekend, Denny. We'll be bringing a crowd. Looks like you're ready."
I added, "It's been a long haul, but it was obviously worth it. Thad talks of little else these days. I can see whygreat job tonight." Though the compliments felt like shards of glass in my throat, they were sincere enough.
"Thank you, Mahk," Denny gushed. "I had no idea what I was biting off when I began this venture." He whisked a silk hankie from somewhereit must have been tucked up a sleeveand began mopping his brow, bemoaning the heat, the work, the lack of proper funding for the arts, and on and on. As he yammered, I noticed something. There near the stage, a distinctive new scent had joined the smells of dust, lumber, and paint that I'd whiffed from the back row of seats. It was sweet and flowery, with a hint of pine, vaguely familiar. Had Denny doused himself with too much aftershave for the hot night? "But all the effort," he concluded, "has indeed paid off. Just a few technical glitches to resolve, and the show, I daresay, will be perfect."
"Which means," added the other man, whose conversation we'd interrupted, "I've got work to do." His good-natured comment seemed to confirm my assumption that he was on the show's crew. He stood about my height, not quite six feet, and seemed about my age, perhaps a few years younger. Due to the heat, he'd worn shorts that night (I wished I'd done the same), showing legs that were nicely toned and well tanned. Though sweating, and apparently beleaguered by Denny's "technical glitches," he displayed an amiable attitude that complemented his pleasant features. I was hoping to be introduced when, to my surprise, he asked through a handsome grin, "How's it going, Neil?"
"Fine, Frank. Though it seems you've got your hands full tonight."
"Just the usual last-minute travails of an amateur tech director."
Denny assured us, "The best in the business."
"For the price," added Frank, "which is nothing."
We all laughed. I extended my hand. "I'm Mark Manning."
"Duh," said Neil, slapping his head, "sorry, Mark. I thought you'd met. This is Frank Gelden, the show's technical director. You'll rarely see him down here in the theaterhe's usually cramped up in the control booth, working lights and sound." Neil pointed up and back, in the direction of the balcony.
"I enjoy it," Frank explained with a shrug. "Pleased to meet you, Mark."
Thad said, "I've told you about Mr. Gelden before. He's our faculty adviser for Fungus Amongus." Responding to my bewildered stare, Thad amplified, "You knowthe mushroom club."
Then he sat at the nearby worktable, joining the playbill assembly line.
"Jeez," I said with a laugh, shaking my head, "I can't keep track anymore." I really couldn't. There'd been a time, barely a year earlier, when Neil and I had fretted that Thad lacked "involvement" and could be headed for trouble. Now he had so many interests, I wondered if he needed to scale back. There was theater, of courseplus cars, photography, and of all things, the school mushroom club. There were doubtless other activities that hadn't even sunk in with me yet. I asked Frank, "You're a teacher, then, at Thad's school?"
"I'm a teacher, yes, but not at Dumont Central. Actually, I'm on the natural-sciences faculty at UWWoodlands," he told me, referring to the local branch-campus of the University of Wisconsin. "I'm a molecular-biology prof, and mycology has always been a special interest, so I volunteered to advise Central's mushroom-hunting club. They're a great group of kids, the Fungus Amongus."
Looking up from his program-stuffing, Thad informed me from the Corner of his mouth, "Mycology is the study of mushrooms."
I mussed his hair, telling him, "I figured." Turning to Frank, I said, "Between your volunteer work at Central and your volunteer work for the Players Guild, how do you find time for teaching?"
"I'm off all summer, and when things do get frantic, wellCynthia and I have no kids of our own, and I like being able to help. It's fulfilling."
In a nutshell, Frank Gelden struck me as a nice guy. Interesting too. I removed from a pocket the pet fountain pen I always carry, an antique Montblanc, and made a note to mention Frank to my features editor, Glee Savage. She might want to work up a story on him. Local readers can't get enough of those homey, feel-good profiles.
"How is Cynthia?" asked Neil. "Could you let her know that when she gets back to town, I'll have a revised set of drawings for her?"
Something clicked. I interrupted, "You mean Cynthia Dunne-Gelden?" She was a recent architectural client of Neil's, a businesswoman planning a sizable addition to her country home. I'd wondered how Neil knew so much about Frank's involvement with the theater group, since Neil's own involvement was tangential at best. The house project explained everything: Neil knew Frank through Cynthia.
Neil proceeded to detail for me exactly what I'd just figured out. While nodding to these presumed revelations, I had the opportunity to get a closer look at Frank, intending to inspect his legs again, to study their lustrous nap of sun-bleached hair, but my eyes locked on his wedding ring. Oddly, this tangible symbol of "where he stood" came as something of a relief. More often than not, upon meeting an attractive man, I was content to presume him gay until my wishful, groundless theory was contradicted by reality. I would then mourn the loss of yet another potential addition to the brotherhood. In Frank's case, though, I was glad to set this speculation aside from the outset. Frank's life had already touched both Thad's and Neil's, so I prudently nipped any prurient notions then and there, before they had an opportunity to root in the fertile loam of my imagination.
"I'll phone her later tonight," Frank said of his wife. "She'll be delighted to hear about the blueprintsshe's been itching to break ground."
"Denny?" asked a woman as she stepped into our circle of conversation. She carried a pile of clothes and a long, ratty wig. "I've made all the changes to Tommy's costume. Got a moment to check him out before act two?"
"Of course, Joyce. Anything for you, my dear." Then Denny remembered his manners. "Oh. You already know Nell Waite, but I don't believe you've met Thad's, uh ..." He gestured toward me, whirling his hand vacantly, unsure what to call me.
"Uncle," I supplied the missing word, taking only minor offense at Denny's hesitation. "My pleasure, Joyce. I'm Mark Manning."
She offered her hand, after extracting it with some difficulty from the bundle she carried. "I thought so," she said, "from your pictures. My name's Joyce Winkler, costume mistress extraordinaire." She puffed herself up with comic pride, then blew a stray lock of hair from her sweat-shiny forehead.
Neil told me, "Joyce is also Nicole's mom." Drawing a blank look from me, he elaborated, "Nicole is in the cast. She's up there with Jason and Kwynn." His glance led my eyes to the stage.
Jason Thrush still sat center stage, talking with two girls as other kids milled about. I knew Kwynn Wyman, Thad's friend, so I assumed Nicole Winkler was the other girl, the pretty one I'd noticed doting on Jason. She was still at it. Though she chattered vacantly while preening her luxuriant gold tresses, her hungry eyes betrayed an obsession with the hunky young actor. I had sensed this from the back of the theater; now, at closer range, Nicole's lewd daydreams were embarrassingly obvious.
Her mom was explaining, "Theater has always been Nicole's thing, not mine. But she's been through some ... 'rough spots' lately, and she's off to college this fall, and, well, I thought it was time to do a bit of bonding. So here I am, 'sharing her interests.'" Joyce laughed at the pile of clothes in her hands, at the self-imposed drudgery she'd taken on. "And the worst part was juggling schedules with my real job. I owe people night shifts for a year now."
Denny told us, "Joyce is a lab technician at the hospital."
"I don't know squat about sewing, but duty called, so here I am. Fortunately, most of the 'costumes' are just street clothes."
"It's a contemporary drama," Denny reminded us through pursed lips, "requiring little by way of constructed costuming."
"Except"Joyce hefted the wig, robe, and whatnot in her arms"the Old Man. I've pricked my fingers to the bone building the one costume that spends the least amount of time onstage. Let's nab Tommy," she told Denny, "and see if this sucker finally fits."
"Dear, sweet, put-upon Joyce," Denny told her, "I am at your command." And with a regal flourish befitting a Louis, he led her away from us, approaching the smallish Latino boy who sat alone, studying his script.
"I'd better get busy myself," Frank told us. "There are a couple of complicated cross-fades in act two that just haven't been working. Of course, it would help if we had some decent equipmentevery circuit is already overloaded, and most of those dimmers are on their last legs."
I sniffed. "I thought I smelled something electrical."
He laughed. "Don't worry. I'll get things patched together. We'll survive the two-weekend run." He turned to bound up the aisle toward the balcony, then paused, telling us, "Break a leg in act two, Thad. Good to see you again, Neil. And great to meet you, Mark."
We echoed his friendly sentiments, and he was goneeaten, it seemed, by the shadows of the old theater. "Nice guy," I told the others. It was an offhand comment, conversational filler, not intended to carry any subtext, but as I said it, his wedding ring glinted in my mind's eye.
Excerpted from BOY TOY by Michael Craft. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Craft. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.