The Sinking of Molly Brown
In the late '90s, when Titanic hit big, Molly Brown was once again a hot property. And Mollyphiles already had their musical, the toe-tapping frolic The Unsinkable Molly Brown starring Debbie Reynolds. But a few years later, a playwright friend of Ernie's decided to forego the tunes, and strip Molly's life down to a one-woman show. Starring Ernie as Molly. Naturally.
I had nothing to do with The Ghost of Molly Brown. Although I tried.
"A bare stage," I said. "Nothing but a sectional sofa. Circular. White leather. Maybe a small table. And a rotary phone. Let's give it a '70s vibe."
"But we're putting it on in a coffee shop," said Ernie. "And you're not directing it."
"And I see you in slacks and a turtleneck. Lesbian chic. With a shag haircut. Like Cloris Leachman in Phyllis.
"The playwright envisions it differently."
"Well she's a ghost," I said. "Let's have some fun with it."
The one-night-only one-woman show was performed at a boxy urban coffee joint, conveniently located so Ernie could exert the least amount of effort to get there, just around the corner from his condo in Belltown, several blocks from Seattle's Two Bells Tavern.
Ernie had introduced me to Two Bells a few years earlier. And told me tales of hanging out there while attending Cornish College of the Arts, sitting up at the bar next to intoxicated dreamers, talking about creative projects that would never get made because they were all too damn drunk too much of the time. Because talk is cheap in a Seattle bar where everyone is an artist on the verge of a nervous breakout. So that became the benchmark. Whenever Ernie and I heard a big talker--including ourselves--going on and on about some future project, we would warn each other about the Two Bells bar stool drunks. And encourage less talk, more action.
I learned on the day of the show that the show had been directed on the day of the show, by the playwright, in a car, while driving back from Portland to Seattle, staging the entire show in three and a half hours without ever having seen the stage.
"How can you direct a play in a car? How can you do blocking? This makes me very angry," I said, angrily.
"The playwright wanted to take his lover down to Portland while he was here."
"I can't tell you how upset this is making me. It's so Two Bells of you."
When the audience arrived--six of Ernie's friends, a few of their dates, plus Ernie's lover--tables and chairs were still being shifted around, the clamor periodically drowned out by a blast from the espresso machine.
"I think there's still some coffee customers here. I thought they were going to clear them out, then re-open the doors just for the play," I said passive-aggressively enough so everyone could hear me.
Ernie hovered between the "stage" and the restroom, in costume. "We rented the dress," said Ernie, as I slowly shook my head. They were going for a period look. But instead of upscale 1912, Ernie looked more like Mrs. Oleson from Little House on the Prairie. Or Norman Bates' mother.
Ernie's cue to begin was My Heart Will Go On, the Titanic movie theme. Seriously. I can't remember if they used the Celine Dion version, or the instrumental, but it was endless. It took Ernie about five seconds to walk onstage. Then another four minutes to just stand there and adjust his bustle. The squeal of the milk steamer occasionally broke the monotony. And then it began. The life of Molly Brown, as remembered by her ghost. During the forty-five minute show, Ernie drifted in and out of at least three different accents. And remembered his lines almost 50% of the time.
"Aah...the Titanic," said Ernie, his voice somewhere between Julia Child and Tracey Ullman as Princess Margaret. Then, "LINE!"
And then he would be prompted from offstage. But it wasn't really offstage because everyone could see the playwright standing next to the coffee counter, script in hand, feeding Ernie nearly every other line. And if it had been intentional, it could have been an interesting effect. Molly Brown in stereo. But as performed, it was light years from Ernie's down-to-the-syllable perfection in Fever. And as angry as I was, I felt bad for the playwright. Because the script wasn't that bad. But no play can survive this sort of stop-and-go. So the only dramatic tension was wondering at what point Ernie would simply give up and end the performance. But like Celine Dion's heart, he just went on and on. And unlike the Titanic, Ernie took less than an hour to sink.
Although I will credit the production with a memorable finish. After Ernie's last line, he exited out the front door. And we all saw his profile through tall windows as he walked down the sidewalk, head held high, against a backdrop of panhandlers, drug addicts, tourists, and a public fountain with a statue of Chief Seattle. And Ernie suddenly achieved the ethereal quality that had been missing during the play. Suddenly, he was the ghost of Molly Brown, floating above the sidewalk toward the Two Bells Tavern.
Unfortunately, he didn't return for the cast party.
[from the upcoming Videoteur.]