The night they discovered the body in Shubert Alley, my first show on Broadway was in the process of becoming a flop. Killed by bad acting. Bad directing. Bad everything. You almost broke your leg stumbling over all the bad notices on the way back from the theater to the dumpy little midtown hotel they had put me up in. And I was headed there, headed there fast, when the police lines caught my eye.
Dead playwright, was what they were saying. The onlookers. The gapers and gawkers. Mostly the well-dressed evening crowd. The playgoers. The ones who greased the machinery of so-called legitimate theater in New York so the Schluberts and Bonefelds could support their lavish summer homes in the Hamptons and pretend that somehow culture was being served. And being served indeed it was this warm spring evening, though in rather a perverse fashion. Served up dead. The "it" being a playwright, shot through the chest, lying there lifeless in Shubert Alley, with a note tacked to his body: "Beware, legends of Broadway. You may be next."
And so I stopped to gape, still fresh from my own stinging humiliation and assassination, from the savaging of my play at the hands of a lousy director and his summer-stock flunkies, certain that the politics of New York theater had done me in. The larger question was -- who had done this poor, hapless playwright in?
I managed to push through the hordes of gapers, to get a look at the fellow's face. My God, I knew him. And his lousy plays. One of those creepy little Off Off playwright types, dark-haired vampire denizens of shit-dump black box theaters, with his hair slicked back and a greasy pocket comb in his pants. Yeah, those crappy little black-box theaters that clung like maggots to the underbelly of the city.
He was one of them, all right, one of those no-talent creepy wannabes, but surely he didn't deserve this. Not even bad playwriting, revolting and execrable sin that it is, deserves this kind of recompense. And the words on that piece of paper kept echoing in my head -- "You may be next" -- echoing and echoing, and bringing me to a frightening realization -- indeed, I already had been next. The loud clanking of word processing keys in the hands of unfriendly critics no doubt sounding a death knell on my playwriting career -- clunk, clunk, phutz!
And yet how could I suspect, among this crowd of the horrified and the curious, that in less than an hour, rather than being universally vilified, I might be all the rage. At least as far as the local precinct cops were concerned, who would be banging at my door, trying to piece together the puzzle of this sordid little affair to figure out whodunit and the odds on where the perpetrator might strike next.
I turned away from this shocking little scene and walked back to my hotel. The cheap midtown one the producers had put me up in. With cheesy plastic bedcovers and broken towel racks, and lifeless little landscape portraits hung on mildewed walls. And locked the door behind me. Ran a cold shower, the iciness of the water purging the foul smells of the streets and of that repulsive crime scene from my tired, middle-aged body. I had just completed toweling when the cops showed up at my door. Knock-knock, and two plainclothes cops flashed their badges in my face. They let themselves in.
"How well did you know him?" the first cop asked.
"Your one-acts and his one-acts ran back to back on the same show."
"Back to back, length to length, and the poor son of a bitch was one of your biggest fans."
"Now wait a minute."
"The guy had a note in his pocket. One of those 'Remember me? I'm an admirer of yours and really proud you made it' kind of notes. Now, you feel like talking?"
"What are you saying, I'd kill an admirer of mine?"
"Maybe he wanted to stuff some cotton up your ass, maybe you didn't like it. Maybe cozy-cozy turned ugly. You ever have coffee with him?"
"We went through his apartment. We found programs."
"What sort of programs?"
"Your plays, his plays."
"I hardly knew the guy."
"Sure." They looked around, stretched their hands. "Good luck with your show. We'll look forward to your appearance at the precinct tomorrow morning bright and early. And just in case, we have your agent's name and number." And they were gone.Good luck with my play. Right. And good luck to the poor bastard whose name happened to be Harold Fischer, who was dead as a doornail on the pavement of Shubert Alley. Whose guts had been blown out. And whose plays really hadn't been that bad, if you considered they were hopelessly amateurish, idiotic and dull. Then again, couldn't that be said of ninety-nine percent of what passes for Broadway theater these days?
I returned to the bathroom. Paused to glance at myself in the mirror. Deep, tired-looking eyes stared back. Brows plenty furrowed. A middle-aged playwright whose odds of hitting it big were getting slimmer by the minute, with a sense that one of these days I would be getting old. And I wondered if the next bullet that came out of the darkness might not be aimed at me. And if, indeed, that might not be a kind of blessing.
Then I called room service, ordered up a big hunk of chocolate cake, shoveled its huge creamy chunks into my mouth, and puked my guts out on the bed.
I put out the lights and turned on my side. Peered through the darkened curtains into the New York night. Outside the occasional woof and rumble of passing cars could be heard, and there were distant city sounds that seemed far away. Quiet bands of theatergoers were wending their way home through the streets in the direction of the outer boroughs.
I lay there wondering what part I played in this greater drama of life, a divorced, middle-aged guy from the New Jersey suburbs who loved writing cutesy dialogue just a little too
much and who once harbored a dream. And then those words were echoing in my ears again, the ones that would scare the daylights out of anyone -- "Beware, legends of Broadway. You may be next." This did not sound a friendly note.
I turned back over and pulled the covers over my head, wanting to shut out the ugliness of this night. There was obviously a maniac out there, a maniac running loose with a thing against Broadway, stalking the streets under cover of darkness. This was the sort of plot that theatergoers might thrive on, but a plot complication I had never anticipated. How dare my play get upstaged by a thing like this?
I couldn't help but suspect this was just the beginning. That there was trouble brewing on the Great White Way. And yet how could I possibly suspect that in just a few short days, Broadway itself, bright lights and bearer of dreams of stardom for actors, directors, dancers and playwrights alike, might very well come burning to the ground?