THE FRIENDS OF BILLY TOLAND
by Jack Neary
“The Friends of Billy Toland invite you to a Memorial Service on Tuesday, May 21st, at 7 p.m.”
Richard Davidson read the card again. Billy Toland. The name was familiar. He’d typed the name recently. In one of his reviews. Couldn’t remember which. Or what he’d said about him. Must have been something generous, though. Otherwise, why would he be invited to the man’s memorial service? Too bad he couldn’t place him. He enjoyed memorial services for theatrical figures. More passion and intensity than he encountered reviewing the dreck that passed for drama in New York these days. He looked at the embossed invitation. Day after tomorrow.
He sat at his PowerBook and booted up the reviews he’d written for the Times over the past six months. He searched for the name Billy Toland. He found it attached to one of his more scathing critiques. Billy Toland was the playwright of AULD LANG SYNE, which he described in his notice as “the kind of transparent thriller that makes THE MOUSETRAP look like classic dramatic literature.” He went on to dub Mr. Toland “the lobotomized Agatha Christie,” and the production as “Chernobyl Onstage.” As he scrolled the piece, he acknowledged that while the review was one of his more amusing efforts, he could barely remember seeing the play. The review was dated three months earlier.
Clearly, the invitation was a joke. The unfortunately late Mr. Toland obviously had friends who wished to confront the critic over his views about AULD LANG SYNE. He would not accommodate them.
The next evening, upon returning from the theatre after enduring the latest Lloyd Webber musical harangue, he checked his answering machine.
“Hello, Mr. Davidson. This is Roger Toland. I’m calling about the invitation we sent you to Billy Toland’s memorial tomorrow.” The voice on the machine was gruff, weathered. Billy Toland’s father? “We hope you’re planning to attend. Billy idolized you, believe it or not. He wanted you to know that he respected your work and your opinion and that he even came to terms with your piece on AULD LANG SYNE in the Times. ‘What Richard Davidson writes about theatre must be taken to heart. As an artist, I bow to his wisdom.’ That’s what his suicide note said. But you shouldn’t feel in any way responsible for his fate. My Billy struggled with...many demons. What he did...was inevitable, unavoidable. He would want you to be at the service. If you could attend, I would be very grateful. Tomorrow at seven. Two-eighty-four West 83rd. Apartment 4-A. Thank you.”
“Oh, Lord,” thought Richard Davidson, “the man committed suicide over my review.” Well, how ridiculous was that, anyway? What is wrong with these theatre types? Why must they put so much stock in what a critic says about their work? Silly, silly people.
Well. He’d go. The last thing he needed was a coterie of whining playwright groupies bad-mouthing him at Dramatists Guild meetings. He’d show up at the service, pay his respects, such as they were, and leave. Silly people.
The following evening was sweet and balmy, even for May, so he decided to walk from the Times to the address on West 83rd Street, which he estimated to be very near Riverside Drive. He’d follow 43rd to 10th and walk uptown from there.
Just beyond 9th Avenue, on 43rd, he paused in front of the Westside Theatre. There, no longer ablaze with light, was the marquee for AULD LANG SYNE by Billy Toland. The two stage doors to the right of the main marquee were adorned with placards sporting quotes from other critics. “A fresh new dramatic voice!” said the Daily News. “Crisp, stinging dialogue and a sizzling love story!” said Newsday. “Finally, a new thriller to cheer about!” said the Post.
“My God,” thought Richard Davidson, “did these people see the same play I saw?” And then, again, he tried to remember the show. He could not. Thrillers bored him. Boredom breeds inattention. Clearly, he’d been inattentive that night. Inattention, he’d long since determined, was never his fault.
There was nothing on the placards from the Times, of course. No quotes from Richard Davidson. Unless you counted the closing notice thumb-tacked on the placard at the right. He could, he supposed, assume responsibility for that. The show had run only eight days, expiring in the wake of his review. He tried not to smile. He failed.
Still, seeing the dead theatre dulled his step and spoiled his walk. He looked at his watch. It was nearly seven anyway. He hailed a cab at Tenth. The sooner this junket were over, the better.
The cab eased to the left side of 83rd, just before it reached Riverside. Richard Davidson took one look at the decaying building and almost ordered the driver to take him home. He paid the fare, however, and emerged from the cab, checking the invitation for the apartment number. He entered the doorman-less building, waited to be buzzed in, then rode the narrow, screeching elevator to the fourth floor.
He heard the hum of chatter when the elevator door slid open, and followed it to the apartment at the end of the classically deteriorating hallway. The door to Apartment 4-A was open, and people from inside spilled out into the hall. As Richard made his way down the corridor, the guests eyed him. By the time he reached the door, the humming chatter had all but ceased.
He stepped inside and saw the large oval urn perched lovingly on a table amid a spray of spring roses in the center of the room by the window. A photograph of the deceased, a gentle-looking soul who appeared to be in his early thirties, was placed on an easel next to the urn. A man, possibly in his seventies, greeted guests by the ceremonial table. The eyes, the nose, the once sharply-etched, now jowl-y chin reflected the features of the man in the photograph. This, then, had to be Roger Toland. A fleeting, foreign twinge of sympathy found its way into Richard Davidson’s heart. That was to be expected, he supposed. Still, it wasn’t his fault this man’s son had been a lousy playwright. He wished at this point he could at least remember what the damn play was about, in case he had to refer to it. He’d have to be abrupt, control the encounter, keep the conversation to a minimum. He approached the gentleman at the urn, and took his hand.
“Richard Davidson,” he said.
“Of course,” said the bereaved. “I’m Roger Toland. I left the message on your machine. I’m so glad you’ve come.”
“I’m sorry for your trouble,” Davidson said, wanting desperately to be on his way home.
“You’re just in time for the service,” Roger Toland said.
“Well, I don’t really think I...”
“Please. You must stay. For Billy. You must.”
It sounded like an order. Perhaps it was. Perhaps there was a pocket of bitterness in Roger Toland’s soul towards his beloved Billy’s beloved Richard Davidson. The elder Toland shooed another guest out of a large easy chair in the corner, and ushered Davidson into the chair.
“Here,” said Toland. “You’ll be comfortable here.”
By this time, the chatter had ceased completely. The mourners--mostly young men and women, clearly theatre types--who had stuffed themselves into the tiny apartment now focused their attention on the urn. Or actually on Toland, who stood in front of the urn.
“Thank you all, so very much, for being here this evening,” the old man said, his voice Gene Kelly-soft. “As sad as the occasion is, I know Billy would have wanted us all to share some peace of mind knowing that he lived his life the way he wanted to...”
The interruption came from a man leaning up against the wall opposite Richard Davidson. He was dressed completely in black, his hair was cropped short, almost shaved off, and his complexion was far from healthy. He stared uncompromisingly into Richard’s eyes. Roger Toland spoke gently to the man.
“Terry, this is not the time to...”
“Screw the time, man. Look at him sitting there. We all know why Billy cut his wrists. He did it.” He lifted his right arm and pointed at Richard. “That prick, there. Prick has the nerve to sit there...”
“Maryann...” Toland nodded as he spoke to the woman standing next to Terry. She took Terry’s arm and tried to move him towards the door. He thrust her away.
“Get...off me!” He turned to Toland. “I can’t believe...You’re his father, for Christ’s sake! You let this asshole sit here after what he did...after what he wrote...” Terry removed a newspaper clipping from his shirt pocket and began to read from it. “Why anybody would buy a ticket to AULD LANG SYNE is the question of the decade. This pretend thriller by one Billy Toland is as phony as a salesman’s smile and as suspenseful as a trip to the back porch to pick up the morning newspaper...” Terry stopped reading and flailed the clipping in the air as he stepped closer to Richard’s chair. “One Billy Toland, he says. Is it humanly possible to get more condescending than that? You talentless creep!”
“Terry!” Toland moved towards the man as he hollered. “Stop it. This minute! That is not what this evening is about.”
“Gee, I don’t know, Roger. I think Terry has a point.”
It was another voice, a woman’s voice. A four-pack-a-day woman’s voice. In a cluster of mourners to Richard’s left. A man standing directly behind Richard responded.
“Come on, Sheila, let’s not turn this into some kind of vindictive...”
“Up yours, Sawyer,” Sheila said. “Terry. Read some more.”
“What is purported in the program to be a ‘psychological mystery’ is actually an exercise in tedium comparable only to what MURDER, SHE WROTE would be if it were written by Bassett hounds.”
“That is enough!” Roger Toland’s aging face had turned fire engine red, highlighting his shock of white Phil Donohue hair and his piercing black eyes. Richard sat frozen, embracing the support. “I will not allow my son’s memorial service to be poisoned by vengeance and hatefulness!” The man was articulate, powerful, in control. “This is my son. I am in charge here!”
“I’m afraid that’s not quite accurate, Roger.”
This time the voice belonged to a man who eased his way to the center of the room as he extinguished a cigarette in an ashtray. He placed the ashtray on the table near the urn, and turned to face Richard Davidson.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Mr. Davidson?”
“Parker. What’s this all about?” Roger Toland had lost his bluster.
“Sit down, Roger,” said the now smoke-free man. “This is my party.”
“What do you mean?” Roger asked, broken.
“Sit down,” the man repeated, certainly for the last time. Sheila and another woman took the suddenly enfeebled Toland by each arm and sat him in a folding chair. Richard looked as casually as he could towards the main door, but couldn’t find it. All he could see were people. And eyes.
“Allow me to introduce myself, Mr. Davidson. My name is Parker Calloway. I’m a playwright. Maybe you’ll recall my last piece. It was called “The Factor.”
Jesus God, “The Factor.” Barely ran a month. Closed last week. Had something to do with prostitutes and minor league baseball players. Hideous beyond comprehension. Richard had reported as much. He used the words “dreadful” and “somnolent” in the same sentence.
“Look around the room, Mr. Davidson,” Parker Calloway continued. “There isn’t a man or woman here you haven’t... edified with your stultifying prose.” Calloway turned to face the fortyish woman who had assisted Sheila with Roger Toland. “Marian Tsongas, Lighting Designer.”
Tsongas pulled a clipping from her pocket, and read from it. “The lighting by Marian Tsongas is competent--unless you’re in the habit of seeing the actors during the play.”
“Sawyer Silk, dancer.”
Silk was the voice directly behind Richard, who heard another newspaper clipping crackling open in his left ear. “Before Silk attempts one more time-step on Broadway, he should practice coordination. If someone volunteers to teach him how to walk, I’ll gladly chip in for the stick of gum.”
“John Turnbull, actor.”
Richard hadn’t seen Turnbull in the crowd. His was one face he would have recognized. Turnbull had been a Davidson target for years.
“I hardly know where to start,” Turnbull croaked as he appeared from behind a large fern in the corner. He grasped a fist full of clippings. He chose one, cleared his throat, and read.
“In DARK PASSAGE, John Turnbull demonstrates, as always, that the minimum responsibility of the actor is to show up.” Turnbull folded the clipping. “That’s my favorite. I’ll save the rest for later,” he said. Later? The word sent an actual chill up Richard’s actual spine. Later? What was happening later? Turnbull slipped into the crowd.
“Thank you, John,” Parker Calloway said, re-taking the floor. “Now, as we have all agreed, we take the ceremony outdoors.”
“I will call the police!” wailed Roger Toland, vaulting from his chair. God bless Roger Toland.
“Roger,” said Parker bluntly, “this is now completely out of your hands.”
Beaten, Roger sat again. His sad eyes appealed to Richard Davidson, for forgiveness. This was not his doing.
Richard felt two sets of burly hands reach under his arms and lift him to his feet. On his left side was John Turnbull, on his right, Franklin Atkinson, a man Richard once referred to as “a director in need of a theatrical compass.” Atkinson’s grasp was especially vital.
The two men whisked Richard to the elevator. They shoved him against the rear wall and turned him around. He was immediately enveloped by the first wave of guests who crowded into the elevator with him. The door closed on more guests, salivating in anticipation of the next ride down. Just before the door slid shut, Calloway squeezed inside, looked back and hollered, “Sheila! Bring the urn!”
By the time Richard and his traveling companions hit 83rd Street, darkness was descending. When they reached the sidewalk, the second elevator wave gathered around Richard and camouflaged his captivity as the parade moved down to Riverside and across the street to the park. Richard made one feeble attempt to shout for help, but as he did, the group broke into loud laughter, burying his pleas. He couldn’t see where he was being taken. The blackening sky above him was his only window to anything but shoulders and necks and backs of heads. His armpits started to burn as he was thrust down a steep hill, seemingly far away from the street traffic. At the bottom of the hill, he was pushed up against a steel post. Turnbull reached out to another mob member, who tossed him a thick rope, which he in turn tossed to Atkinson. The actor and director then tied the critic up against the post, gagged him with a rolled up copy of that day’s Arts and Leisure section, and stepped back, revealing that they and the large group were in a small playground in what looked to be a cul de sac in the park. Richard slowly turned his head to see that he was lashed to ladder of a children’s slide. The slide was flush against a wall of rock rising twenty feet to street level. All he saw in front of him were the shapes of his captors. Beyond that, trees. It was almost completely dark now. Perhaps the plan was to just leave him there to fend for himself until daybreak. At this point, he’d consider that a gift.
Suddenly, the sound of automobile engines roared to life. Four sets of headlights bathed the cul de sac in artificial brightness. Richard squinted for a moment, then saw the cars tucked neatly between the clusters of people, still watching him, now clearly smiling. The smell of gasoline fumes was gagging.
“So we can respond spontaneously, Mr. Davidson,” announced Parker Calloway. “We may want to cheer. We may want to applaud. We may want to laugh. The noise will drown us out.” Calloway pivoted formally to face his people. “Ladies and Gentlemen, shall we proceed?”
Slowly, each member of the group approached Richard and, one by one, read a personalized snatch from a Davidson newspaper clipping, tore up the clipping and dropped it solemnly into a small moat which had been dug at Richard’s feet. When they were through, Richard looked down. The clippings had overflowed the moat and mounted up to reach just below his ankles.
“Sheila. The urn.”
Calloway spouted his order and stepped aside as Sheila carried the large, round robin’s egg blue urn towards Richard. She stared at him, and placed the urn on the ground. She stared at him again, and moved her face to within inches of his nose. She turned to the group.
“He’s tearing up,” she said. “He’s crying!” And some of the spectators laughed.
“Sawyer!” Calloway nodded to the dancer, who gracefully stepped to the urn. “Open it!”
What in God’s name were they going to do now? Sprinkle him with Billy Toland’s ashes? How offensive could they get?
Sawyer Silk reached down and took the lid from the urn. He lifted the urn, and showed it to Richard.
It was empty.
“Yes, Mr. Davidson,” said Calloway. “It’s your urn.” He then clapped his hands.
And instantly, all the car lights clicked off.
Just as instantly, a torch burst into life in the center of the group.
Richard lost sight of the people in the blinding flame from the torch. He watched, hypnotized with fear, as the torch moved slowly through the air towards him.
To his right, Sawyer Silk jumped into focus. To his left, John Turnbull. Each had a pail emblazoned with the word, “Gasoline.” Simultaneously, each tossed the contents of his pail at Richard. Whatever odor night have emanated from the liquid was countered by the incessant fumes from the rumbling car motors.
The torch was inches from his face. His eyes filled with the orange of the fire. The car engines blasted louder and louder as conspirators stepped on the gas pedals. They were going to do it! They were going to cremate him!
Richard Davidson screamed.
Abruptly, the torch was pulled to the side. The face of the torch bearer looked Richard Davidson in the eye.
It was Roger Toland.
“This was much, much easier than we thought it was going to be, Mr. Davidson.”
“What do you mean? I...”
“Don’t respond! You don’t! Have! Any! Lines!”
And Roger Toland yanked his left eyebrow from his own forehead. “You are merely a featured cameo. No dialogue!” Then he ripped off his right eyebrow.
“What is theatre, Mr. Davidson?” the man asked as he pulled wads of latex flesh from his jowls. “When is a thriller a thriller?” He reached into his mouth and removed a set of false yellowed caps. “Exactly how real does a play have to be before it’s no longer transparent?” He then tore the white wig from his head. It was the man in the photo on the easel at the service. It was Billy Toland. “Stop the cars, Parker!”
The engines quieted and the headlights were turned back on. Billy Toland squeezed Richard Davidson’s hanging shirt tail, and flicked the liquid from it into his eyes.
“Water, Mr. Davidson. Illusion.” He threw his torch to the ground and Sawyer Silk pounded the flame to extinction. Billy Toland reached into his back pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a script. He held it for a moment in front of Richard, then tossed it to the ground. Richard bent his head to look at it. He was able to read the title in the glaring light from the cars.
“DAVIDSON’S DEMISE BY BILLY TOLAND.”
“Bring it home with you tonight, Mr. Davidson. You’ll find it reads very well.” Then Parker Calloway brought another copy of the script to Richard, opened it to the last page, and held it for Richard to see. The last line on the page read, “BILLY: BRING IT HOME WITH YOU TONIGHT, MR. DAVIDSON. YOU’LL FIND IT READS VERY WELL.”
“I will...I will bring charges against all of you!” shouted Richard Davidson. “This is a criminal offense! This is kidnapping! This is...assault! You will not get away with this!!”
“Uh...yes. Yes, we will, Mr. Davidson,” Billy said, as he eased aside to reveal a man wielding a videotape camera aimed directly at the humiliated critic. “We’ve recorded every moment of this...drama.” He spoke to the cameraman. “Dennis, pan down and get a close-up on Mr. Davidson’s trouser leg.” Richard then realized he had wet himself. Toland continued. “We’re fully prepared to make copies to distribute throughout the theatre community. Here in New York. Across the country if we have to. We believe you’d rather not have that happen.”
Richard said nothing.
“In fact,” continued Billy Toland, “we believe we’ve rendered you...irrelevant. Haven’t we?”
Franklin Atkinson then pulled out a pocket knife and cut Richard loose. No one in the crowd moved. They waited as Richard walked slowly past them and up the ridge, out of sight.
The next day, Richard Davidson stunned the New York theatre world by announcing his resignation as critic of the Times--effective immediately.
That is, he stunned most of the New York theatre world.
April 28, 1995