Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gone but Not Forgotten - HOT KEYS

I tossed 20 years of theater files but that doesn't mean they're gone gone gone. This is a series of articles with photographs and musings of some of the more special items.

Here's the flyer for HOT KEYS by Jeff Weiss, a serial soap opera that won an Obie Citation. (Click to see it enlarged.)

Jeff Weiss ala Humphrey Bogart.

"...until Jeff has had enough..."

I met Jeff through Tony Nunziata, also known as Tony Fish, who was part of the gay musical trio Hot Peaches. Sometimes I think how funny it was that all the people who looked out for me when I was a snotty teen were all gay men. But then, if you grew up in a downtown NYC theater in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone you knew happened to be a gay man. I didn't know Tony very well but he asked me to be part of a reading. It was at that big building on 10th Street and Broadway across from Grace Church. The apartment was fabulous, one of my first instances of seeing a place decorated with incredible taste. I stared in awe at some gorgeous Greek theater etchings on the wall and then Tony came over and informed me that they were early works by Picasso. Well, the play was something about a Vietnam vet written and starring Jeff Weiss. I was in the last scene with Jeff, playing a Vietnamese woman encouraging him to eat pig's balls. Apparently, I knocked the scene out of the park, since he invited me to be part of his new project HOT KEYS.

I still think what a genius idea this piece was. It was another iteration of Jeff's serial theater pieces with a different "episode" every week. We got the script for the scene(s) we were in on Monday or Tuesday, rehearsed on Wednesday and Thursday, and performed the episode on Friday and Saturday. Repeat the following week. The only constants were that each "episode" began with the Rodgers and Hart song Where or When, and somewhere in the middle of the episode one character would sing the gorgeous ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By, written by Jeff's partner, Carlos Martinez. The perverse and sprawling storyline was something about various murderers who go on the lam and end up in Disneyland.

Jeff wrote the part of Mary Lois for me. At least I think he did. I was 18 and I had a slight reputation after living in TNC's cages. In HOT KEYS, I played a wild teenage party girl from South Jersey who murders the milkman. Or maybe it was the postman. My mother was played by the amazing Kristen Johnston, whom some of you might know from 3rd Rock to the Sun. And my boyfriend Wesley was played by Neil Pepe who later became Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theatre. Here's the first page of my first scene with Wes.

From the sexy & perverse imagination of Jeff Weiss.

I turned down a part in a regional production of M BUTTERFLY that would've gotten me an Equity card to be in HOT KEYS. Sometimes I think maybe that was a bad career move, but I was 18 and it seemed like a helluva lot more fun and interesting to be in HOT KEYS. And in a way, I was right. I met some amazing people and I was part of an Obie Award winning production. But I did learn a hard lesson about the pitfalls of being poor.

There was a peculiar rich/poor or uptown/downtown divide in HOT KEYS. I think Jeff knowingly set it all up, being the mischievious imp that he is. Almost all of the actors came from four theaters: Naked Angels, Atlantic Theatre, La Mama and TNC. For those of you who are unfamiliar with NYC's theater landscape, Naked Angels and Atlantic are tonier theaters in Chelsea with more experienced actors. But Jeff gave the juicier roles to people from the scruffy East Village theaters La Mama and TNC. The actors from Naked Angels and Atlantic mostly played talkative cops. This made for a rather tense environment but I think Jeff liked it that way.

At that time, I was a teenage runaway and homeless. By the time I was in HOT KEYS, I was no longer living in TNC's basement, but I was drifting around various SROs in New York. For those of you who don't know, SRO stands for Single Room Occupancy and they were teeny tiny cheap hotel rooms for single people set up after World War 2 mostly for returning vets. If you were poor, SROs were a great option since they were about $100 a week. They were usually segregated by sex and in the 1980s and 1990s, the best ones for women were the Allerton and Martha Washington. But I also stayed at skeevier places like the Kensington and the Lincoln, which to my consternation turned out to be a whore hotel. The Lincoln was later knocked down and it's now the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Well, being poor, things happen like you suddenly can't pay for your phone service. I turned up at Naked Angels one Wednesday for rehearsal as usual and to my shock, I discovered that I'd been replaced. It seems the stage manager had tried to call me and wigged out that I couldn't be reached even though I had been attending every week for like three months. The East Village folk understood how you could have your phone shut off and they were livid. For a moment, it seemed the rich/poor divide in HOT KEYS would implode. But I didn't want any part of it. I left the production and never saw Jeff again.

Shortly after HOT KEYS, Carlos became ill and Jeff took him home to Allentown, PA to take care of him. Sometimes I think about Carlos' beautiful ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By. I wish I remembered more of the lyrics. There was recently a 3-night retrospective of Jeff's work at The Kitchen. Don Shewey's blog has a lovely review of the event (scroll down). And Jim Moore of Vaudevisuals posted a video of one of the songs sung in HOT KEYS. It seems I can't embed it, but the link is here.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, just came across this having attended a memorial for Murphy/Carlos/Richard at LaMama this evening. Great to read your reminiscences of that wonderful place and time...
    Signed: A Later Addition to the Hot Keys Crew (who played Sol Scheisskopf!)