Playing Dolls

A writer returns to her theatrical roots—and faces down an emotional shoot-out

Ms. Pink (Jillian Austin) and Ms. White (Valerie Carpenter Bernstein) have a word with Ms. Blonde. | Photo by Richard Brusky.

Ms. Pink (Jillian Austin) and Ms. White (Valerie Carpenter Bernstein) have a word with Ms. Blonde. | Photo by Richard Brusky.

We all have our embarrassing secrets. Mine? I started college as a theater student. Granted, it was at New York University, which is kind of like Harvard for acting, but it still makes folks wonder what other kind of weird, flaky life decisions you’ve made.

I lasted three semesters. The same self-awareness that made me a good actor made me wretchedly neurotic about auditions. Also, there was this writing thing I’d been doing for a longer time, and might actually be better at … That’s not to say that my theatrical career was entirely done. My film-student buddies provided a few more rounds of freezing in backless white chiffon on a Manhattan rooftop in February, or chasing a guy across a Brooklyn street waving a plastic .45.

Twenty  years later and 2,000 miles away from New York, I saw a Facebook posting about auditions for an all-female version of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs at Onyx Theatre. And I said to myself, “Fuck, I should be in that show.” It’s twisted, bloody and full of filthy language; also, I resemble the love child of Frankenstein and Jayne Mansfield, which isn’t a bad look for a criminal. It probably would have ended right there, except I made the mistake of saying this aloud to a friend who would not allow me to back out.

So I went to the Reservoir Dolls audition—down a long, dark hallway, the better to fantasize about turning and running—and managed to get the director to laugh out loud at my monologue about a decapitation. I made it to callbacks, where the finalists take a crack at the actual script. All the other women seemed to know each other, had been in plays sometime since the Clinton administration, and were real actors. I figured I did OK, but I was sure everyone else was much better.

Thus, I was kind of shocked to be offered the part of Ms. Blonde—you know, the psycho that cuts off the cop’s ear. (All of my friends say the same thing: “You couldn’t be anyone else.” Hmm.)

Nice Gal Edie (Deven Ceriotti) and Ms. Blonde shoot the shit. | Photo by Richard Brusky.

Nice Gal Edie (Deven Ceriotti) and Ms. Blonde shoot the shit. | Photo by Richard Brusky.

Within a few days, the cycle of rehearsals began and I was trying to remember how to ride the bike. Actually, it’s more like juggling: Remember the lines, when I say them and where I have to be when I do. Then think about who my character is, where does she come from, what does she want and why. I may think about something that happened to me personally to goose up the emotional level. Finally, I’m thinking about handling the props and setting off the effects at the right time. Some nights I walk out of rehearsal feeling like Robert Fucking De Niro, but there are nights I’m Tara Fucking Reid—and not even Sharknado Tara Reid: Van Wilder Tara Reid.

The rest of the ladies were delightful: I quickly realized that no one cared about my aggressively amateur status. And we did embody a gang of female hoodlums pretty well—even the most innocently light-blue statement twisted into filthy banter. More than once Troy Heard, the director, had to pause a scene because we wouldn’t stop cracking jokes. We got used to the uniform of black suits and ties. Everyone else looks like a fierce businesswoman or badass gangster; I look like the keyboardist in Just Can’t Get Enough: Playing the Hits of the ’80s, Fridays and Saturdays in the Lounge.

The rehearsals seemed to drag on forever … and then, suddenly, it was the final run-through before opening night, during which I righteously botched my big scene. I whiffed the slap. I put my foot up to pull out my knife and lost my balance. The fake blood didn’t come out of the fake ear. I forgot to take the lighter out of my coat pocket. The blood pack when I got shot didn’t go off. I fell too close to where someone else had to get shot. The only thing I managed to not fuck up was breathing—actually, if you count my shitty job of playing ”dead,” I screwed that up, too.

All of this sent me into opening night in a fine frame of mind. I could see it: “Ms. White? Great actress. Ms. Pink? Hilarious. Ms. Brown? Piss-yourself funny. Nice Gal Edie? Solid. Ms. Blonde? Why the fuck did they cast that bitch?” I sat in the dressing room, twitchily making a disaster of my eye makeup, Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” blaring through my earbuds in an attempt to conjure up some bravado, and wishing for a shot of whiskey.

But we made it through opening—and the two sold-out performances after it. The audience laughs, cheers and seems to genuinely enjoy themselves. People tell me I’m good often enough that I figure I at least don’t suck. And it has tempered my nihilism: Rather than lamenting how everything interesting in my life is behind me, something new and weird is ahead every time the curtain goes up.

RESERVOIR DOLLS

Various showtimes, Thu-Sun, through Jan. 31. Onyx Theatre, $20, 702-732-7225; OnyxTheatre.com.

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