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Next: LEAH'S STORIES Up: No Title Previous: THE SEANCE


The first true pituh-play was created and always performed by Vicky, for an audience of Danny and Tycho and me. The play's title was ``Vanya, the Insane Pianist.'' It depicted a very emotional musician who is violently carried away by the music she plays.

This drama was entirely Vicky's invention. She made it up years before we had a piano teacher named Alex Minkoff who subtly encouraged his students to rock back and forth and even grunt while performing at recitals. Mr. Minkoff was rotund, and his own stage demeanor was so agitated that he had once actually fallen off the piano stool in the middle of a concert. Vicky knew nothing about this when she invented Vanya.

Danny and Tycho were always begging Vicky to do ``Vanya, the Insane Pianist,'' which was funny, though (we thought) totally meaningless. None of our friends knew about Vanya, which Vicky only performed for our own family. But we did put on other little skits at parties, which we called Pituh-Plays, and were often inspired by real people or situations, or popular movies and books.

Of course we had always made fun of certain books. When we were younger, we used to invent ``Dick and Jane'' stories, based on the elementary reading series: ``See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. Hear Baby Sally cry! See Jane put her hands on Baby Sally's neck. Baby Sally is very quiet now. Mother is angry. See Dick break mother's face with Daddy's axe. Look at all the pretty red blood!''

The telephone game was another early precurser of the Pituh-Play. Vicky would call a number at random, (I listened on the extension), and when someone answered she would say in a babyish voice, ``Can you come to my party?''

``Who is this? Who do you want?'' the stranger on the phone might say.

``It's . . . it's my birthday,'' the childish voice would answer. ``My mommy and Daddy forgot. I'm all alone. I want to have a birthday party but I don't have any friends. Will you come to my party?''

Often people hung up at this point. But sometimes they fell for it. ``Your mommy and daddy left you all alone? You don't have a babysitter?''

``All alone. And it's my birthday.''

The voice on the other end would pause, then say something like, ``I'm sure your mommy and daddy really love you. I bet they're planning a surprise for you. And remember, I care about your birthday.'' One woman even sang ``Happy Birthday'' over the phone, as we tried to stifle our giggles.

Another of Vicky's phone gambits was to call a random number and say, ``Please help me. I'm lost. I can't find my mommy.''

``You're lost? Call home.''

``Nobody home. My mommy went away on a bus and left me here.''

``Call the police.''

``Don't have any more money.''

``But . . .'' If we were lucky, the voice on the phone would start to sound really worried now. ``Can you tell me where you are?''

``I'm scared,'' Vicky said when this happened, sounding tearful. ``It's big and dirty here. There's all these busses. There's all these mean-looking men with whiskers and dirty clothes on and they smell funny and talk funny and want to give me candy if I'll go with them.''

``Are you at the bus station? Downtown? Your mother went away on a bus and left you there?''

``Uh huh,'' Vicky said, whimpering.

``Don't talk to anyone. Don't go with anyone. Stay right there and I'll come and get you,'' the person said, and hung up. We rolled on the floor.

When Vicky grew too old to sound babyish on the phone we began doing real Pituh-Plays at parties with our friends. Sometimes Vicky made up names for the characters, such as Renaissance de McCarthy, or Peristalsis Sperm van Weatherbiddington. One popular character invented by Vicky, (which, unlike Vanya, she performed for people outside the family), was named Nancy Kotex. Vicky did a TV commercial about her. ``Poor Nancy Kotex,'' she recited in professionally cheerful tones. ``None of the boys liked her because she smelled like a garbage dump! Then her best friend told her about new floral scent Kotex. Now she's the most popular girl in town!''

Vicky and I did a play which opened with Vicky sitting on a bench with a brown paper bag over her head, and me kneeling in front of her. I was just slipping a ring onto her finger. ``Yes, darling, I will marry you!'' Vicky cried, embracing me, the paper bag crinkling against my cheek.

I sat down on the bench beside her. ``Now, do you think you could, maybe, uh, take the bag off,'' I hesitantly suggested. ``I'd love to see what you look like, just once, before we get married.''

``No.'' She shook her head.

``But why not?''

``I'm too ugly,'' she said with a mournful sigh.

``You couldn't be that ugly. I'm sure I'll love the way you look, just like I love the way you are.''

``No you won't,'' she insisted. ``As soon as you see how ugly I am you'll hate me. You'll be embarrassed to be seen with me, you'll never get married to me or even stand to look at me again.''

``No. I promise,'' I coaxed her. ``I love you because you're such a wonderful person on the inside. It doesn't matter what you look like.''

``If it doesn't matter what I look like, why do you want to see my face?''

``How can you get married to somebody and never see her face? How can I kiss you? How can I look into your eyes?''

``Well . . .'' She began to soften.

``Please, darling,'' I urged her. ``Do you think I'm so superficial that I'd change my mind about you because of your mere outward appearance? You know I'm not that kind of trivial person. I swear to God that I'll love and cherish you forever.''

``Well . . . . All right.'' Slowly Vicky lifted the bag from her head, her eyes squeezed shut, her shoulders hunched as though anticipating a blow.

``Why . . . You're beautiful!'' I cried, placing my hands on her cheeks and gently turning her face toward me.

She smiled in relief. Her eyelids fluttered and lifted. She stared at me.

And then her mouth dropped open in horror. ``My God! You're so ugly!'' she screamed, jumping to her feet and backing away from me. ``I've never seen anything so revolting in my life! What would everybody think if I got married to that?'' She pulled the ring from her finger and hurled it at me. ``I never want to see you again!'' she shouted, and ran from the stage.

One of the most popular Pituh-Plays, also performed by Vicky and me, was based on the movie of Tennessee Williams' ``Night of the Iguana.'' In the movie, Richard Burton is a defrocked, dissolute clergyman, staying at his friend Ava Gardner's crummy hotel in Mexico. Also staying at the hotel is a dignified elderly poet in a wheelchair, cared for by his devoted granddaughter, Deborah Kerr, who is always dressed in white. The poet and his granddaughter earn a meager living by traveling to different towns, where the old man recites his poems in public.

One night Richard Burton is tied in a hammock on the veranda, suffering from the DT's. Deborah Kerr, all purity and goodness, sits beside him to give him comfort, and during the long night they trade their life stories. The closest she has ever come to physical intimacy was one evening when she and a gentleman hired a boat in Hong Kong harbor. He never touched her, she explains. All he asked was for her to give him her underpants, and she modestly obliged.

``You didn't think that was disgusting?'' Richard Burton asks her.

``Nothing human disgusts me,'' she says with gentle eloquence, ``unless it is violent, or unkind.''

In the Pituh-Play, I was Richard Burton, Vicky was Deborah Kerr. We sat beside each other on a bench. While sweet, innocent Vicky told me in her quiet voice about the incident in Hong Kong harbor, I munched complacently on saltines. At the end of the story I asked her thickly, ``Didn't you think that was kind of disgusting?''

Vicky folded her hands and lifted her eyes. Fervent with noble sensitivity and compassion, she said, ``Nothing human disgusts me, unless it is violent, or unkind.''

``Not even this?'' I asked her, and spit a big wet glob of chewed up crackers into her lap.

Other Pituh-Plays were performed in public places. Vicky Ann and Emily's streetcar game, ``The Pitiful Encounter,'' was a prime example. There was also Vicky's watermelon baby routine.

On summer evenings, a group of us would go to a fountain in the park, where there was always a crowd of people watching the patterns of colored lights on the falling water. Vicky had with her a small watermelon, carefully wrapped in a blanket and a frilly bonnet, no skin exposed, so that it exactly resembled a very young baby. With the rest of us strategically placed among the crowd, Vicky cradled the baby in her arms, rocking it, murmuring to it about the pretty fountain. Bystanders smiled.

Then Vicky's voice grew louder. ``You don't care about the pretty fountain, do you?'' she chided the baby. ``You don't care about anything but yourself. I'm getting kind of sick of that, you know?''

People were giving her funny looks. ``I can't even go to the park without having to drag you along!'' Vicky angrily accused the baby. ``And your father never lifts a finger to take care of you. And all you do is make messes and scream and cry and keep me awake all night. I can't stand it any more!'' she cried, her voice becoming hysterical. ``I just can't!''

People moved away from Vicky, murmuring. She stepped toward the fountain. ``I can't stand it for one more second, I can't, I can't!'' she screamed, lifting the baby over the water.

``No! Stop! Don't do it!'' several of us shouted, running toward her.

But we were too late. With a demented shriek, Vicky hurled the baby into the shallow fountain, smashing the watermelon into a pulpy red mush. Then we got out of there, fast, before the stunned bystanders noticed the seeds.

The most elaborate Pituh-Play of all was Albert's brainchild. He had been reading about happenings, a new avant garde art form. Happenings were often multi-media events in which the viewers were invited into a strange environment to interact with the artwork or the performers. In the most effective of them, Albert said, unexpected things actually happened to the surprised audience. Creating an event that would startle and maybe even shock or frighten the viewers was an inspiring concept.

Many of us now took piano lessons from Alex Minkoff, one of the most highly-regarded piano teachers in the city, whose studio was in our neighborhood. It was Albert's idea that the happening should take the form of a recital of some of Mr. Minkoff's pupils, to which an unsuspecting audience of adults and peers would be invited. Mr. Minkoff, who had a great sense of humor, agreed enthusiastically to Albert's plan. The only restriction he imposed was to ask us not to invite any members of the professional musical community, which was fine with us--we weren't interested in shocking them. Five students were willing to perform pieces they had been working on with Mr. Minkoff. We mimeographed programs and mailed them to several dozen people, with The Alex Minkoff Studio as the return address. Then we practiced--and made other detailed preparations, many of them in and around Mr. Minkoff's studio.

The audience arrived at what appeared to be a perfectly normal concert. Mr. Minkoff often did have recitals in his studio, and the chairs were set up facing the large grand piano just as usual. The friends, parents, other adults and a few teachers in the audience were all nicely dressed, and chatted quietly as they looked over their programs. At five after eight, when they had all arrived, Mr. Minkoff stepped in front of the piano to greet them, as he always did at recitals. ``Welcome, everyone. It's good to see you here. I'm sure you'll all enjoy the recital tonight. Since the program is a short one, there will be no intermission. Thank you.'' He bowed his head slightly to their polite applause, and sat down at the back of the room.

Albert performed first, a sad little Chopin Etude. The music sounded more poignant than usual tonight, since the piano was noticeably out of tune. A few of the more astute listeners in the audience glanced at each other, but most of them didn't seem bothered, and the applause was enthusiastic.

The second piece was a Beethoven Sonata, a longer work, performed by a boy named Richard, one of Mr. Minkoff's most advanced students. The opening movement was fast, and Richard played it quite loudly, on purpose. Most people barely noticed, or were able to ignore at first, the very soft grinding noise that gradually began to emanate from the vicinity of the stage. (We had hidden the tape recorder behind a closed, floor-to-ceiling window curtain at the front of the room.)

The second movement was quiet and pensive. Now the inexplicable wavering groans from the hidden tape recorder were clearly audible to everyone. Many people in the audience exchanged puzzled looks, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. The woman sitting beside Mr. Minkoff, a very proper music lover who was a member of his coterie but had no money, whispered something to him. He silently indicated that he didn't know what she was talking about and put his finger to his lips, leaning forward to listen to the music.

At the most moving and delicate moment in the piece, when Richard, as was his habit, was bent over with his head close to the keyboard, breathing heavily, the apartment buzzer bleated. People jerked in their seats, then turned to frown at the door. Vera Lermontov, as planned, clicked into the room in four-inch heels. Though her embarassed manner indicated she thought she was trying to be quiet, her shoes made a great deal of noise on the bare floor. Instead of unobstrusively taking a seat at the back, she headed for one near the front, at the end of a long row of people, stepping on many of their toes as she squeezed past them. ``I'm sorry, so sorry,'' she kept apologizing, loudly enough to disturb the entire audience.

About a minute after she sat down, and people had stopped glaring at her and were trying to listen again--despite the warped wheezing mechanical chirps and grunts from behind the stage--a toilet flushed loudly at the back of the apartment. Most people turned around and looked, really offended now. Mr. Minkoff gave the barest of shrugs, indicating there was nothing to be concerned about. But the applause when Richard finished was not quite so hearty. There was a lot of exasperated conversation during the interval before the next piece, people muttering irritably and looking around the room.

Of course everyone stopped talking when Dave, the third performer, began to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue--everyone, that is, except Vera, who was sitting directly behind me. (All the performers were seated in the front row.) ``Hear that wrong note?'' she asked me, loudly rustling her program.

``He always makes that same mistake,'' I confirmed, speaking in a normal voice.

Vera ignored the furious shushing noises from the people seated beside us. ``Poor Dave,'' she said complacently. ``He must be so embarrassed.''

``I told him that piece was too hard for him,'' said Vicky, who was sitting beside me, generating a flurry of vehement hisses. Vera sat back in her chair and began fanning herself with her program, cracking her gum.

Just when the audience had begun to settle down again, a loud moan came from the bathroom, followed by retching and choking and the disgusting splash of liquid being spewed into the toilet. Almost the entire audience began whispering, many of them looking a little ill. Dave just went on playing. At the end of his piece several people got up and spoke to Mr. Minkoff. He told them, smiling, to return to their seats. The strange noises from the front of the room were just the heating system, he said, and everything else would be taken care of. He got up and went to check out the bathroom.

I performed next, a Brahms Intermezzo. I played on as though nothing were the matter when the phone began ringing piercingly in another room. Again, people turned. Mr. Minkoff was not in his seat, apparently still taking care of the sick person in the bathroom. The phone went on ringing. Finally the stuffy, matronly woman who was next to Mr. Minkoff's empty seat got up and left the room, and a few moments later the ringing stopped.

That was when the clomping footsteps and the sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor began in the apartment above. Soon the people upstairs switched on a radio. It was quite loud, but not as loud as the pulsating rumbles and crackling noises from the hidden tape recorder.

Some people in the audience were still trying to ignore the disturbances, making a valiant effort to listen to the music. But others were murmuring, despite the fact that I was still playing, shaking their heads in indignation and disbelief. Our cohorts planted throughout the audience, such as Vera, frowned at these people, making it clear that their behavior was distracting them and interfering with the concert.

When I finished, to scattered, tentative applause, the matronly woman marched out of the apartment to speak to the people upstairs. We knew it would be useless, since the people upstairs had been instructed to ignore anyone knocking on their locked door. They went on moving furniture and listening to the radio, the tape recorder went on gurgling and sputtering, as Vicky stepped onto the stage. No one in the audience, even those involved in the happening, knew that they were about to witness the first public performance of ``Vanya, the Insane Pianist.''

Vicky sedately approached the piano, bowed demurely to the threadbare applause, and began to play a Chopin Prelude. At first her demeanor was very controlled. She sat bolt up-right, her expression serious and withdrawn, her body motionless except for her fingers tinkling delicately on the keys.

But as the music grew more turbulent her torso began to sway. Her head dipped toward the keyboard, then lifted, her back arched, her chin raised, her eyes half closed. She tossed her head, her long hair swinging more and more wildly, falling over her eyes. She began to moan. The music increased in volume. She was making glaring mistakes now, too exalted by passion to bother with trivialities such as playing the right notes. The audience, suddenly dead quiet, watched Vicky in horrified astonishment. Her groans became wails, she convulsed on the bench, no longer producing music, her open hands crashing violently on the keyboard. Finally she leapt to her feet in a disheviled frenzy and ran shrieking from the studio.

There was a long moment of utter, stunned silence. Then a confused disorderly babble broke out. No one could ask Mr. Minkoff what this was all about, since he was still hiding in the back of the apartment. Some people, such as the proper matron, stalked out of the studio. Others were frankly worried; I heard many people wondering if Vicky had had some kind of fit, their eyes moving apprehensively toward Mom and Dad.

Mom and Dad were talking and laughing with some of the more astute adults, who had finally realized that the whole thing was a joke. Others were not so amused at being tricked. It was an interesting test of character to see which people appreciated the humor of it, and which ones were offended.

Later that year Vicky won the starring role in the high school production of Arthur Miller's ``The Crucible.'' Mom had known Arthur Miller briefly in college; he dated one of her roomates. Once he borrowed Mom's bicycle and carelessly left it in the street, where it was run over by a car, which twisted the main bar in a way that made the bike unrideable. He returned it to Mom in this condition. When she complained, he jumped up and down on the bicycle to try to straighten the bar, told Mom it was fine now, and never offered to pay to have it repaired. For this reason, Mom always insisted that Arthur Miller was a lousy writer. But she agreed, along with everyone else, that Vicky was brilliant in the part.

Vicky was not a particularly avid student, and dropped in and out of college. At one point she applied to a prestigious university drama school. They were not impressed by her grades, which weren't up to their standard, but did allow her to audition, though they warned her that she had little chance of getting in. At the audition she had to perform a long, difficult monologue, alone on stage in front of an audience of highly critical judges--in competition with other applicants who had been studying acting for years. The judges unanimously gave Vicky the highest possible rating, and the school accepted her on that basis.

But she never went to drama school, because her boyfriend wanted her to return to the college they had both attended the year before, and she did. He broke up with her a few months later. The idea of Vicky becoming a movie star was really more my fantasy than hers. She tells wonderful stories about her experiences as a nurse, and is the mother of two children.

Once, when Vicky's daughter Julie was a toddler, all four siblings in our family visited Mom and Dad at the same time. It was an unusual occurence, since we are all very spread out around the world, and we did a lot of videotaping. One evening Vicky and Julie stood fully dressed at the edge of Mom and Dad's swimming pool, and Tycho taped Vicky giving a lecture on how to teach your child to swim. ``Don't worry about any silly little preliminaries,'' Vicky said with authority. ``Don't bother getting them used to the water in stupid baby pools, or training them to float in a few inches of water. That's all a waste of time. Take my advice. If you want your baby to be an instant swimming prodigy, just pick her up without warning and throw her into the deepest water--like this.'' Vicky lifted Julie and swung her around over the deep end of the pool. Julie loved it.

But when Vicky set her down on the rim of the pool Julie was a little dizzy. She bent down, reached forward, and tumbled head first into nine feet of water, sinking like a stone. Vicky unhesitatingly plunged in after her in her new dress. Vicky's first words, on emerging from the water with Julie, who was startled but unharmed, were, ``Did you get that, Tycho?''

Unlike news cameramen who stand there filming people immolating themselves instead of stopping and trying to help them, Tycho had thrown down the camera and rushed toward the pool. But he had gotten a shot of Julie tumbling in, and picked up the camera a moment later when he saw that Vicky had rescued her. That night we played the tape on TV for Julie, taping Julie as well as the action on the screen to get a record of her response. When Julie saw herself falling into the water she laughed joyously and clapped her hands.

I don't know if Julie really thought it was funny, or if she was actually scared and only pretending to be amused. Vicky claims she can tell the difference between Julie's real laugh and her fake one, but I never can.

Julie is also quite good at coming up with names. It was Julie who decided that her younger brother would be named Spencer. Her nickname for the rambunctious little boy is Fluffy.

Julie and Vicky do wonderful pituh-plays together. Vicky is

often the harsh and abrasive parent or teacher, Julie the perfectly-behaved, mistreated child. Sometimes Julie will suddenly burst into tears in a play and I'll think something has unexpectedly upset her. But it's only part of her role.

next up previous
Next: LEAH'S STORIES Up: No Title Previous: THE SEANCE

Daniel Sleator
Wed Jan 14 17:24:59 EST 1998