by Hugh Gilmore

Last Saturday I fulfilled another item from my Walter Mitty-ish bucket list: I performed live, in a speaking role, in one of those eat-and-guess dinner party murder mysteries.

I played “Sal,” a stereotyped South Philly Italian wiseguy. My wife, Janet, played “Gloria” beside me, and boy was she ever dolled up! And I’m still alive this morning to write my column, though for a while there I had my doubts. The story is worth telling here to all those who never got to see it since it was “Sold Out” weeks in advance.

The show is called “A Wedding to Die For.” It’s produced, written and directed by Diana Finegold and Richard Seiden, both Chestnut Hill residents with New York roots. After successfully producing such shows in New York and New England for years, they formed The Wild Thyme Players when they moved down here to Chestnut Hill three years ago.

This latest production is described as a “GUESS WHODUNIT at this wild and wacky Italian-Jewish wedding where the MOB…MATRIMONY…& MURDER form an unholy trinity of Thrills, Chills, and Giggles.”

The show was performed at Scoogi’s Italian Restaurant at 738 Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown.

Okay. That’s the background. Here’s how I got involved. The first thing you should know is that this whole play-acting thing is not my thing. I’m a behind-the-scenes guy. It’s not easy to be out front. I’ve never acted in a show before a live audience of paying grownups.

It starts out like this. My son Andrew’s dream in life is “to make people laugh.” From the time he was a little boy, when asked what he wanted to be in life, he said, “I want to make people laugh.”

As a parent you start to say, “That’s not a very worthy ambition,” or “That won’t feed a family of four very much, will it?” and then you hold back and think: Gee, I don’t know, maybe it is a worthy ambition. People sure could use a laugh.

Andrew used to be part of the Thursday morning Play Reading class at the Chestnut Hill Enrichment Center. When Diana Finegold first moved down here, she, too, sat in on that class. After a while both of them stopped attending for various reasons, but Diana remembered Andrew had a facility for doing comic accents well.

When she was casting for “A Wedding to Die For” she remembered Andrew and invited him to audition. He got the part of “Maestro,” a vain, hyper, over-dressed, zany Italian wedding planner. He brought to the role every funny Marx Brothers walk, talk, shrug, double take and shameless self-promotional shtick he’d ever learned. The cast cracked up every night all through rehearsals – as did the audience on show night.

Andrew doesn’t drive because he has vision problems left over from being born as a two-pound preemie. So Janet and I shared taxiing him. Janet’s expertise as a costumer with Chestnut Hill’s Stagecrafters theater was known to Diana Finegold, and soon “one little favor with a hem” was followed by two little favors and ultimately by Janet becoming costumer for the show. I had little to offer – fortunately, because a theater production needs probably more than a hundred hours of prep and rehearsal time (per person) for every hour spent on stage. I was very busy with my writing life, most notably with the book launch our wonderful literary center, Musehouse, had offered me.

You can run, but you can’t hide. On Monday a week ago Diana Finegold called and asked me if I was coming to the show. Of course.

“Could you say some things from the audience during the show”? she asked.

Of course.

The next day I called her and asked what I had to say? “Oh just a few lines here and there.”

“Well, do I stand up to say them? Do I say them to a particular person? Am I just myself?”

“No, you’re a mob guy. And yes, you stand.”

“Oh, okay. Do I use a mob voice?”

“Yes, of course. And then you just pull out your gun and point it.”

My gun? I don’t have a gun. I don’t like guns. I don’t want to be seen with a gun. How do I get out of this? I said, “I point my gun? I don’t want to point a gun. You should get someone else for this role.”

“The person I had was not reliable. The show opens in four days. Don’t worry about pointing the gun. Before you get to shoot it someone comes and tackles you.”

“Tackles me?” Nuh uh.

So we worked it out. Just as I reach for my gun in my breast pocket, I’m restrained. What’s that? Rehearsal every night? What a big pain in the neck. Secretly, it was kind of thrilling. Live dinner theater. What would it be like?

The main cast had been rehearsing for six weeks. They were a lively, attractive and interesting group of people. I joined them last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Friday was an off day. On Saturday everyone came in at 3 p.m. for a 6:30 curtain.

Rehearsals are a form of mental torture. The play lacks all continuity. People forget cues, lines, entrances, exits. The blocking is askew. We rarely play five minutes straight without a flub, leading to a conference. One thing constant: Andrew as “Maestro” cracks them up every scene.

To dress as “Sal,” I dug out my only pair of black shoes (bought for my mother’s funeral six years ago and closeted since). Wore my black wool jacket, dark pants, a dark Lycra zip-neck shirt (a gym shirt, really).

I used hair product to comb my hair straight back and up a little, a “Mob-do.”  (My sister, Gilly, told me later, “I liked your hair that way. It’s much better than that flat way you usually wear it.” Thanks.)

By Saturday I’d reached the level of drowned confidence that arrives when you know your lines if you could play the role alone, before the bathroom mirror, but forget them if other people are in the vicinity. I try to reassure myself by saying that the important thing is to remember the essence of what I have to say. Then I can improvise a little, but still say the gist of the scene.

I can’t remember the gist either, though. And what’s more, the other actors are waiting to cue off certain specific words I should say. Almost everyone in the cast takes me aside at a certain point to tell me this.

The audience will be seated starting at 6. At 5:30, Janet and I resort to writing our lines on cards we’ll hide under our dinner plates. We’re supposed to pretend to be members of the audience/wedding party, merrily eating supper until we pop up and make wise.

At 5:50. I lose confidence in the cheat sheets. I borrow scissors and cut my highlighted speeches from the script and hide them on the floor near my shoe. This is awful. These people, Diana, Richard, Andrew, the rest of the cast, have worked so hard for so long and I’m going to make this show look embarrassingly amateurish.

At 6:10, the crowd starts arriving. Table after table fills up. Holy moley, a guy just walked in who looks more like “Sal” than I ever could. Wait, there’s another one over there. And over there. Oh boy, I’m not only going to fluff my lines, I’m going to tick them off with my half-baked, “Sopranos”-borrowed, imitation of a mobbed-up wiseguy.

By 6:30, everyone’s happy. Everyone’s eating the table bread, enjoying the wine. Starting to get a little tanked. The energy is high. I’m sitting like a monk reciting vespers to his god, my lips mumbling, my head nodding, trying to get my lines straight.

Wham, bam. The wedding march. The procession starts. A shot rings out. Chaos. Crime solving begins. The show marches forward, moving smoothly. The cast looks beautiful, polished, funny. The laughs come where they’re supposed to. The gasps too. The action is moving relentlessly forward, towards Act Three, where I will have six different little pop-up scenes. Act Three seems too near and oh so far away.

And, both too soon and too late, it finally arrives. My cues move closer. The world starts spinning. I am frozen in time. And then, Bada Boom, Bada Bing!: I’m saying a speech that ends with the words, “Bada Boom, Bada Bing!” I’m over and out. Nobody’s throwing fruit or rotten vegetables. Only five more Double Dutch jump-ins to go.

I blink and it’s over. And the audience loves it. Everyone’s smiling and clapping. And the curtain call comes and the actors take their bows. I stand in the back, to the side. My name is announced. I nod and wave my hand and quickly melt back behind the real actors.

But now, and forever, I can say I performed with good actors in a real show, before a live audience of grownups, who paid admission on a Saturday night, and I know to my own small degree what it’s like. It was intoxicating while it lasted.

“A Wedding to Die For” will be performed again on Feb. 18. Same time, same station. Reservations must be made in advance. The show will probably sell out again by the end of this week.

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