The Books: “Serenading Louie” (Lanford Wilson)

Next up in my Daily Book Excerpt:

Next on the script shelf

SerenadingLouie.gifNext play in my little unalphabetized pile of Samuel French plays is another play by the always wonderful Lanford Wilson – this one is a real heartbreaker called Serenading Louie. It’s hard to choose a scene from the play to excerpt – they are all so damn good. It has a Woody Allen-ish feel to it – you know how Allen’s films (the good ones) SEEM like they’re improvised but they are NOT? You can’t imagine that he WROTE it that way?? Serenading Louie is like that. It SOUNDS like real speech – with interruptions – not just people interrupting each other – but people interrupting themselves – the way we do in real life.

One example of this from the excerpt below: “I remember, when I was … You’ll remember … everyone remembers … I don’t know when it was … twelve years ago or more … I was a kid. No, I was only about twelve or so, so it was longer ago than that.”

The language isn’t cleaned up – the way playwrights so often do. Look how – through that language – you can feel the character THINKING. You can see how he thinks he knows when it was – but then he remembers that he was “only about twelve” – so he has to adjust. Etc. It’s deceptively simple. Almost noboby writes dialogue that sounds so effortless and so human.

But then there are some KICK ASS theatrical monologues as well – revealing human moments – which just blow you away. Lanford Wilson is quite remarkable.

Serenading Louie, if I had to compare it to something with wider appeal – is like The Big Chill. Very much so. In that way it is probably dated now. The baby boomers getting out of college, graduate school – and then having crises of conscience. In Serenading Louie – there’s a group of friends – all Northwestern graduates (well, except for one) – and they are all dealing with the harsh realities of adulthood, of actually making promises to one another, of actually accepting commitment, yadda yadda. It sounds tiresome – and maybe to some listeners it would be – but the WRITING. The characters! I love this play of Wilson’s. It’s wonderful.

There are two couples: Mary and Carl and Alex and Gabby. Mary and Carl were college sweethearts – Carl was a football legend at Northwestern. He is a salt of the earth kind of guy. Went into the army after college. Came home and married Mary. Mary was homecoming queen in college. She is much more protected than Carl. Kind of cold. There is no other woman for Carl. But for Mary … well … she’s in the middle of having an affair. An affair that doesn’t even MEAN anything to her. She is hard and selfish (but also – strangely likable – such is the genius of Wilson). There are no villains here. In a way, Carl – the big strong jock – is a slave to Mary. An uneasy balance. Mary has an affair right under his nose and somehow he just can’t care about it. Then there is Alex and Gabby. Alex was part of Mary and Carl’s Northwestern crowd – he is ambitious. He’s a lawyer with political ambitions. Ambitions which are now coming to fruition. Gabby is his wife – the only non-Northwesterner. And she is just LOST. She knows she is losing her husband – and she gets more and more desperate – it all becomes about sex. If she can get her husband to have sex with her on a daily basis, then that means she isn’t losing him. Alex knows this isn’t love – he feels exhausted by her – he sleeps on the couch – she hovers over him – it is a bad situation.

There are too many scenes to choose from. There’s one amazing group scene when all 4 of them have a dinner party – and everyone is overlapping each other and talking at once – classic Wilson- but … I thought I’d pick a part of one really long and intense scene between Carl and Alex – the two old college buddies. The jock and the brain. The scene is so long I can only excerpt a part of it. I picked the part where Carl opens up.

Carl is one of my favorite characters that Wilson ever wrote. He touches me at a really deep place. I love this man. I feel I know what he needs … and if he only had a woman like me … he’d be happy … This is good playwriting – because it involves me, an adience level, at a visceral level. We identify – we think we could change the outcome IF ONLY WE WERE THERE … but we can’t. We are helpless. We have to just sit back and watch.

Here’s the end of the scene. Alex and Carl are hanging out. Alex opened up a bit about Gabby and the whole sex thing. He is really bummed out about it. He doesn’t think he loves her anymore. Carl’s wife is cheating on him. They are old friends. Here’s what happens. I think my friend David would be absolutely SPECTACULAR as Carl. Okay. Here we go.

Watch how the scene develops. Watch how it ends. Watch where the actors need to go. It is an absolutely thrilling scene. Look at the journey Carl needs to take in this one excerpt alone – the emotional place where he starts, and look at where he ends. Amazing.

EXCERPT FROM Serenading Louie, by Lanford Wilson

CARL. What’s with Gabby now? Why isn’t that working? What’s antagonizing things?

ALEX. I don’t want to discuss it; it’s fine …

CARL. You look happy enough to me — when I see you, the two of you … you’re the perfect couple.

ALEX. I’m happy. I’m OK. I feel great! I don’t know why! Of course we look happy to you. We got out and she’s fine. We have a ball. We get home and she changes completely. Her voice changes, the way she walks changes, she stops laughing, or she starts laughing seductively.

CARL. He’s off again.

ALEX. It’s like she has a little movie of the evening up in her head and we’ve come to the X-rated scene. You should see the array of nightgowns she’s got. She must think I’ve got a fetish. Or maybe she has. Why should it only be men who have fetishes? Outside with you and Mary she’s fine. She comes home with just me and she changes completely. I love her too … out. I could fuck her under the table. We get home and she practically turns to oatmeal on the threshold. She loses every bone in her body. I have to hold her up. Her kisses all turn to tongue. Like she was trying to get me hot. Hell, I was hot already. If I don’t bang her in the pachysandra, she’s going to turn me off by the time I can get my pants unzipped.

CARL. Your problem is you don’t like big sloppy kisses. Other guys I could name live for big sloppy kisses. Some people think big and sloppy is the only way to kiss. Every bood you read, “She melted into his arms with her mouth moist and open …”

ALEX. I don’t know what books you’ve been reading lately.

CARL. You’re making a big issue out of what is basically a matter of taste. I’d say offhand that you didn’t love her, but I don’t want to hear it.

ALEX. No, not that. Well. Less and less. You don’t love someone all the time. You love them for moments. A while now and a while after a while. And with Gabby the times are getting fewer and — all right — you like to get me going. Prove my lack of convictions. Get me going. I’m sorry to be such a drag-ass, kvetching about my problems when your business is in such good shape, your married life is on such solid rock, so idyllic — and so …

CARL. I didn’t say that. Don’t start in on me now.

ALEX. The one good island in a shit-soup of disillusions.

CARL. Come on.

ALEX. Carl, you’re completely transparent. Never play poker, Carl; you’re going to lose your shirt.

CARL. We’re not at your hearings, Alex; you’re not on the House floor. Don’t cross-examine me.

ALEX. Then what is it? You’re turning all wooly and introspective. Morbidly thumbing over your …

CARL. I haven’t felt well.

ALEX. You’re a physical horse, Carl. Mentally, the species is somewhat different lately.

CARL. I’ve had headaches for the past …

ALEX. I don’t know how you can tell a hangover from a headache in the condition you’re usually in.

CARL. Alex, I’m not interested in being the subject of one of our tirades.

ALEX. Hell’s bells and goddamn, Carl; you know she’s cheating on you, don’t you?

CARL. You son of a bitch!

ALEX. Don’t you? [A long pause]

CARL. Does everybody know?

ALEX. I don’t think so. Gabby told me.

CARL. She isn’t a whore … I think she really loves him … it isn’t like that.

ALEX. Did she tell you?

CARL. No, she doesn’t know I know. I don’t imagine. I saw them once. Well, I knew before that. I mean, it’s something you know. There uh … “there needs no ghost”, you know? “Come from the grave to tell me this …”

ALEX. Yeah, yeah, I know, got it.

CARL. He has a family too. Three girls.

ALEX. You know who he is?

CARL. Oh, sure … no, skip it. This isn’t any good. It’s no big deal. It’s a comedy … it’s a farce; it’s not to be serious about.

ALEX. But you know who he is?

CARL. Yes. He’s my CPA. See? His firm does the accounts for my office. Now, no more. I don’t think about it. It’s all the same to me.

ALEX. Mary is a powerhouse, Carl, you’ve got to keep ahead of her … Hell, you know that. You used to be ahead of things.

CARL. At least you didn’t say I got to keep on top of her.

ALEX. What are you doing? Joking? What are you doing?

CARL. Alex, I see it like I see everything else — like I’m up in the air and it’s down on the ground happening to someone else. It doesn’t affect me. Nothing, now … shut up about it. Please.


CARL. I am doing nothing. To my surprise. Nothing. Waiting.

ALEX. Floating.

CARL. Waiting. It’ll burn out. My God, we’ve been married nine years; it’s normal. It’s no big deal. I envy your energy that you can be concerned. It isn’t Mary; Alex, I’m sorry. I can’t get involved with anything. What did you call me, “wooly”?

ALEX. No, no.

CARL. “Wooly” is perfectly fair. But I’m sorry, even as you’re going on about Gabby and you, I keep thinking — I mean, I love you very much — but if it came to the worst, you’d split up and she’d get the house and alimony and you’d get Washington and the car. And besides, I know it won’t come to that. I can’t imagine you taking old silent Hayes’s seat in the House because I can’t imagine anything. I come home and I read what you’ve been saying and watch the roundup of the day’s news events and all that’s happening in the world and it seems like a lot is, but I don’t follow it. I watch and hope along that something will involve me. Touch me. Grab me. Piss me off. Something. Involve. It’s the same thing as with Mary. I can’t galvanize any concern. Nothing anyone says is real – how am I supposed to relate to it? Involve. I have an office manager who boils over … gets worked up over … I remember,w hen I was … You’ll remember … everyone remembers … I don’t know when it was … twelve years ago or more … I was a kid. No, I was only about twelve or so, so it was longer ago than that. Somewhere in Colorado or Ohio or Wyoming or somewhere in the world a little girl was playing in her backyard or near a mine shaft or somewhere, and the ground caved in or she got too close to the well, but she fell down, way down — forty or seventy feet or so into a hole. I don’t know where it was, but this little girl was in this hole in the ground. She was about three years old or five or something like that. And they couldn’t reach her, and firemen came and men with various kinds of gear — and they were afraid of caving in the sides of the hole, and they tried to dig her … reach her … dig her out. They could hear her and knew she was alive. And everyone all over the country stayed around their radios and prayed for her. And teleprogrammed the parents’ hope and messages of compassion and love and hope for this little girl. It was like a war, it was like a kidnapping or like that. A whole country — the whole world — people twenty thousand miles away — were alarmed and concerned for this one … one … one girl. Little girl. This little kid.

[A long pause]

ALEX. And what? [Beat] What happened?

CARL. [Looking at Alex] Huh? You don’t remember that? I thought everyone would remem … No, I didn’t mean it like … It isn’t a story or something. It happened. That wasn’t what I meant … I remember she dies before they could reach her, but that wasn’t why I … I didn’t tell it to be sad. I just think of that time as a time when people were involved. Those events where the whole world goes into suspension and holds its breath at once, and for a little while comes together in something they realize is in some way, more important — significant — than anything else at that mometn. Some crisis. Some danger. [A wondering, a brief pause] We’ve gotten much too civilized for our own good, Alex. And I wonder … at times .. what … the pagans … the p;rimitive people .. .how they felt after a public sacrifice. There’s a need, some need, somewhere, for that important … contribution. So many people feel compelled to sacrifice themselves in one way or another, excuse or another, cause or another. Themselves or something very dear. Or expose it to danger. I try to understand her. Mary. I try to understand that she needs for some reason to expose our marriage to danger. That she needs the danger more than she needs whoever it is … more than she wants anything with Donald. Not sacrifice it if possible, but expose it to danger, herself, our marriage, Ellen. But then probably I just want to think that because I don’t like believing that she loves someone else more than she does … It’s usually the man’s place to have the affair, isn’t it? I thought that was our downfall. [Beat]

ALEX. From the last statistics I read I understand it takes two.

CARL. Maybe I’m just naive about that. Ironic thing, of course, being she’s safe really, because I can’t for the life of me seem to get involved in being betrayed. Even by someone I love so … well, you know. Because like everything else for the last two years or so it just doesn’t seem worthwhile Al. Alex. Alexander. It happens to someone else. Of course you’re tied up into things, various concerns, you’re …

ALEX. Oh, hell, yes. I have concerns out the ass. The government, birth control, the aged, the starving, the homeless and the shiftless, the useless …

CARL. Yeah. Well, I see it and I try to say all the things I feel, express my concerns, but deep down I’m not fooling myself because I know that really … honestly … at bottom … I don’t care. I don’t care. I envy you that you can, but I just don’t care. I don’t care. Care. C-A-R-E.

ALEX. I know how to spell it. I see it on “El” posters.

CARL. When’s the last time you were on the el train?

ALEX. A lot. Really, I go. All the time. Never mind. Skip it.

CARL. They make love in the afternoon, for God’s sake. When they can get away. We never did that, even before we got married. When I was getting my degree. She was a morning repeater. But not afternoons. She never like to. Does Gabby? [Carl gets a drink]

ALEX. Oh, come on, Carl.

CARL. No, no lie, does she? Gabby? if you don’t mind …

ALEX. You can’t learn it by the books. Your experience is not my experience, my experience isn’t yours. It isn’t even Gabby’s experience. Sure. Sometimes. Given Gabby. We have. She loves it!

CARL. [suddenly] Cathy Fiscus. Was the little girl’s name. Little Cathy Fiscus.

ALEX. [looks to him, smiles. Pause.] In the afternoons, yeah, sure. Afterwards … should we go out … among people … Saturday afternoon, Sunday. I feel … well, like I’ve had it. Castrated. Shot. And I don’t mean it funny or clever — spent. Oh God, now you’ll go to work or get on the phone, someone’ll ask you what you did you’ll say, oh … spent the whole goddamned weekend hearing this story about a castrating female or about this guy who felt castrated … but try to see what I mean, past all this, what really is … for me … or for you … or Gabby. I mean walking with her, if we’ve made love in the afternoon, and go out, sometimes I get really mad at her for having robbed me of something. It’s like I’m “safe” now. I feel like I’m this temporary eunuch in her … power. It’s nothing strong, and it’s only in the back of my mind, fizzing away back there where it’s worse … But I get furious with her. I’d just like to be reassured that I wasn’t the world’s only man who felt cut, gelded — after sleeping with his own wife. Ravaged … I’d like jus tonce, dear God take me back to the good old eras past, just once like to ravage her! I wish to hell it was Gabby who was … You don’t know how easy you have it.

CARL. Sure, right.

ALEX. You’ll never have that delicious feeling of being in service.

CARL. You know I don’t agree with any of your … I always feel very proud …

ALEX. Hell, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. Mary plays around with your accountant and you stay home …

CARL. Come on.

ALEX. … Crocheting a goddamned afghan or something.

[Carl slugs Alex quite hard — and immediately, with a cry, grabs hold of Alex’s shoulders — holding him tightly]

CARL. Alex, Alex. I do! I do! I try to understand and see what’s going on, and I see it all go by sometimes like a movie. But I try to understand why she needs this or how it happened and because I rattle on about it I think it doesn’t move me any more than anything else … Alex, why does she have to do it? [Alex, taken completely off stride, is trying to answer, trying to comfort, but neither is possible. Shouting] WHAT’S SHE TRYING TO DO? I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL, ALEX. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL. I WANT IT BACK — LIKE IT WAS. IT WAS GOOD THEN. [Flooding. Alex, over, can mumble, “What, Carl, what?”] IT WAS GOOD THEN, GODDAMNIT, WHEN I WAS OVER THERE — OVERSEAS — AND WE WROTE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER; IT WAS GOOD THEN, IT WAS GOOD THEN. IT WAS GOOD! IT WAS!


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2 Responses to The Books: “Serenading Louie” (Lanford Wilson)

  1. David says:

    Wow, what a scene! I never even heard of this play. You rock Sheila! I’ve been searching for something to work on somewhere and now I have two great leads and you did all the work for me. This and Small Craft Warnings. Love you!

  2. red says:

    You’ve never read it? Yay!!! Not that you ARE Carl, because … God forbid … but you could PLAY Carl like nobody’s business.

    Let me know if you have it – or if you want to borrow it.

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