Theater People

As I mentioned in a recent entry, my friend Adam’s father, Paul, was a well-known comedian and actor. While I was attending college on Long Island I would sometimes journey into Manhattan to visit Adam and, occasionally, get a taste of celebrity nightlife. On one such visit we attended a small birthday party at an uptown restaurant. It turns out the man whose birthday we were celebrating was Nathan Lane. This was in 1984, however, and Lane was still an up-and-coming actor who had performed on Broadway and had just landed his first sit-com. I had never heard of him, but I thought he was very funny in a theatrical way. I remember him doing an imitation of the kind of dialogue he was being asked to perform on the show. I also remember that his cake was in the shape of giant erect penis. I had never seen a cake that was any shape other than square or round.

I didn’t know anyone at this party except Adam and Paul. Everyone was older than I was and everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed to find the jokes being told far funnier than I found them. At one point I was quietly telling Adam a story about college life, in the middle of which I happened to say the word, “Sex.” The man sitting next to me turned immediately, laid his hand on my arm, and declared breathlessly, “Now your conversation is getting interesting!”

I was only eighteen and had never had a grown man talk to me this way. I felt entirely out of my element. What do you say at a party like this? My only guide, it seemed to me, was Paul. I had played Scrabble with Paul and watched movies on his old television set. He felt like an uncle with whom I’d recently been reunited. How did Paul fit into this picture?

This is what I saw: Paul sat across from Adam and me, perfectly silent, but listening closely. I could tell from the focus of his eyes that he was both listening and waiting. He was like a hunter. The conversation progressed, he listened and waited, listened and waited – and then pounced in with a joke. Laughter. Satisfied, he returned silently to the safety of his comedy lair.

The Comedian, I thought. The only one at the table not laughing. I couldn’t blame him. I had found myself in a room of Theater People, whose company, in the years to follow, I would come to enjoy, but against whose continuous showmanship I often felt dull and blunt. If I had had a standup comedian’s training, I’m sure I would have relied on it as well.

The ride home from the party was a quiet one. We wound back through the streets, slowly returning to ourselves. We had an excellent game of Scrabble before bed.

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