The Fat of the Land
By Don Cummings
|Martha||a painter and James’ best friend|
|Beverly||their neighbor and James’ new friend|
|Sam||Beverly’s husband, a judge|
|Robbie||Martha’s nephew, a dancer|
|Claudia Vestibule||James’ and Martha’s closest friend|
The Fat of the Land was work shopped at The West Coast Ensemble in Los Angeles followed by its World Premiere at The Theatre District, produced by The New Theatre--Autumn, 2006, featuring Robert Gantzos, Larisa Miller, Mary McBride, Guy Wilson, Dan Alemshah and John Bader. Dan Alemshah received the LA Ovation Award for Best Featured Actor for his portrayal of Claudia Vestibule. The Fat of the Land also had a full staged reading in Octoberfest at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, directed by Billy Hopkins. The New York cast included Ean Sheehy, Jodie Markell, Leslie Lyles, Mark Elliot Wilson, Dan Alemshah and Henry Gummer. The Fat of the Land was one of fifteen finalists for the Kaufman & Hart Prize for New American Comedy at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
The Fat of the Land
Warm light comes up in the main room of a two-hundred year old, upstate New York house. The wooden floor is worn and covered with area rugs. On one side of the room are soft white sculptures of heads on a shelf. Below, above and next to the heads are sloppy piles of art books, cans of lard, paint cans filled with brushes and an easel. The other side is neat with sheets of music, a working sound system, a keyboard and a guitar. The owner, Martha, has decorated the room with a variety of colors. There is a sofa, two chairs and a few occasional tables. The idea of a window hangs to one side with a view to the autumn leaves. There is easy access to the adjacent unseen but easily accessed kitchen. This place is ninety miles northwest of New York City. The air is clean. The sun is bright. Odd guitar music is heard. It is a scratch track coming from the speakers.
James is in his late thirties, handsome, charismatic, kind, affable, witty, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes attentive. He is working on a guitar song along with the scratch track. The piece is freeform, with piano and guitar, recalling the French romantics, but possibly nothing more than a new age ramble. Progress is at best sputtering. He is distraught. He has been distraught for days.
James: (Screwing up courage) Give me something, here.
Beverly: It’s your favorite neighbor.
James: (actually relieved) Oh, good.
James picks up the guitar and answers the door.
James: Hi, Beverly.
Beverly enters. She wears a knit hat and a large sweater—something concealing and unflattering. Beverly is about forty years old and looks it. She carries the weight of her marriage and wants to slough it off. She was once a lot of fun. A little flighty and not the sharpest tool in the shed, she nevertheless does pay attention. She is agitated, a little scared, excited and ready to explode. However, she maintains her composure to impress James.
Beverly: Hi, James. Can I come in?
Beverly: Are you being visited by your muse?
James: More like avoided.
Beverly: James, you’re so clever. You sure you have a second, because this is important.
James: Sure, what’s going on?
Beverly: It’s hard to say.
James: You look ready to say it.
Beverly: It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
Beverly: (Looking out the window) The apples are getting so big on the trees.
James: And the leaves are ridiculous.
James: This place is paradise...What’s up, Beverly?
Beverly: I think I’m going to leave my husband.
James: You think?
Beverly: I have to.
James: Resolve is the first step.
Beverly: Like apostles. Oh James, it’s wrong, but I feel relieved.
James: So where are you going?
Beverly: First I thought I’d stop here.
James: Would you like a cup of coffee?
Beverly: I already had a few. Is this one of your songs?
James: Yeah. Whatever. (He shuts off the music) You want something to eat?
Beverly: No, thanks. It’s nice. Turn it back on.
James: It’s not finished.
Beverly: Does it have words?
James: Eventually. Nice?
Beverly: I took Sam to the Pyramid club when we first got married.
James: Sam went into the city?
James: Fun town.
Beverly: There were so many African folks and just really talented performers.
James: I’ve never been.
Beverly: You have to go. It’s very historic. The Roosevelts, you know.
James: That Eleanor sure got around.
Beverly: Good God in Lutheran heaven, she was helpful.
Martha calls from the back room.
Martha: (Offstage) Jimmy! Come check out the light. You have to see how the purple has the green in it.
Beverly: I didn’t know Martha was still here. She out in the shed?
James: She’s on a deadline.
Beverly: She’s so interesting.
James: (Toward the outside) Beverly’s here.
Beverly: She gets to do so much.
James: Her energy is amazing.
Beverly: I’ll have a cup of coffee.
James goes into the kitchen for some coffee.
Beverly: It’s funny.
Beverly: She comes up from New York weekend after weekend and I barely know her. You come live here for a few months and we’re such good friends.
James: We clicked.
Beverly: We did. At first I thought you two were an item so I didn’t want to hone in.
James: Just best buddies.
Beverly: You city people are so modern. Do you miss it? (She turns on the music)
Beverly: The city.
James: Not at all.
Beverly: I think I would miss it. The restaurants. The excitement. And the money.
James: Not so much.
Beverly: What do they pay singers for those commercial songs?
James: Depends on the commercial. (Entering with coffee)
Beverly: I can’t believe anyone can write music.
James: Do you want me to put something else on?
Beverly: No, I want to hear yours.
The music plays.
James: (He gives Beverly the coffee) Here you go.
Beverly: It’s such a gift. I’d love to be a musician.
James: You play an instrument?
Beverly: James, I sing, you know.
Beverly: I love to.
James: You should sing, then.
Beverly: Really? Like those singers who sang all those jingles you wrote?
James: Do something better than that.
Beverly: James, you’re so modest.
James: Just honest—
Beverly: This is interesting. (Raising the volume of the music)
James: That’s one way to put it.
Beverly: But it’s so—
James: Really, it’s not ready. Lower it.
Beverly: Yes sir. (Silences the music) James, do you think I should leave Sam?
James: You can’t run away from him. Go home and wait for him and talk—and if he doesn’t budge, tell him you’re going to have to consider some options.
Beverly: He always gets to do stuff. He gets to go up to Albany, gets to go to Utica. What am I supposed to do? I want to see some people. Do something.
James: Join a group.
Beverly: He won’t let me.
James: I don’t want to sound like a snob, Beverly, but that’s just kind of upstate trashy.
Beverly: Should I say the D word?
James: Only if you mean it.
Beverly: I sometimes do. Do you like Sam?
James: I don’t know him well enough to make that call.
Beverly: Do you think he’d be surprised if I just flew the coop?
James: Yesterday you were talking about a baby.
Beverly: You remembered?
James: Of course, so, I think he would be surprised.
Beverly: I’m really in a pickle then.
James: Beverly, just tell him you want some excitement. If he doesn’t get it, make an ultimatum.
Beverly: What kind?
James: I don’t know, Beverly. You’ll have to figure it out. It’s a beautiful day. Go out and do something, honey, it’ll come to you.
Beverly: There’s the new mall with all those great restaurants. I could shop and grab a bite?
James: Yeah, try that.
Beverly: Thanks for talking to me.
James: No problem.
Beverly: I’ll go to the mall.
Beverly starts to leave.
James: See you later.
Beverly: I don’t have an ultimatum.
James: Just think about it in the food court.
Beverly: I can get the chow mein! Turn up your music, James, it’s so lovely.
James: Thanks for stopping by.
James goes back to the guitar. He thinks there may be something in him, something better.
Martha Enters. She is in her thirties. She is very direct and very happy. She lives every moment of her life with her full senses. Life pulses from her. Light practically beams from her eyes. She brings in an abstract lard head sculpture similar to the ones on the shelves. This one pivots.
Martha: She gone?
James: She went to the mall.
Martha: I’m sure they’ll be happy to have her.
James: She’s going to make an ultimatum to her husband.
Martha: And I just saw a pig fly over the big Jesus on the mountain.
James: Did they interact?
Martha: They were both too proud. (She dismissively plunks down the sculpture.) Another fat head is formed.
James: It’s so greasy.
Martha: Isn’t it great how lard has always been that way? Some things are forever. Jimmy, this time of day is so dramatic. You have to see the changing color of the savior.
James: What color is the moody prophet?
Martha: A beautiful greenish purple—He scans the hillside, sneering at the subdivisions in the distance.
James: Jesus has good taste. You look—
Martha: Beautiful. I feel it. Everything is beautiful this evening. It’s like every single molecule of air is shaking and rubbing against my cheeks. The clouds are pulsing purple rays all over me. I want to feel this way all the time.
James: I know. It’s amazing up here.
Martha: Come outside. It’s so green and violet and dusky. There’s so little time.
James: You have the whole rest of the week.
Martha: I have to fix the Edith Head and go into the city and see my dealer. I have to crunch…Oh, hell, with this corporate lingo.
James: Be careful. They’re listening.
Martha: I love the fall. Look at that northern purple light. It’s like Turner. I feel so young breathing this air. Did you see the leaves? They’re red and orange against all this three dimensional blue.
James: I love the country.
Martha: So much better than the city. You’re right. The whole marketplace is just a big game of follow the leader. That mentality sucks you into old age. I am so happy my sculptures of lard are going to make me popular. And rich. Like you. I had to do it in this America. But after that, I cannot succumb to some preordained art history controlled by market forces. I want to feel alive and connected. This place has the color I need. Lard is so wan. These hunks of fat are the last offerings I make to those barracudas. Then it’s the land of color for me—forever. I need the joys of blue and yellow. Time expands in these hills. I have to live here full time.
Martha: As soon as my show is over.
James: This is so great. We’ll have more time together. You are so—
Martha: Happening. I know. The pulsing Jesus on the mount looks at us and smiles.
James: He can see you are happy.
Martha: He can see us right in the middle of our great lives.
James: You’re really going to live here full time?
Martha: Absolutely. I’d rather look at those clouds all day than eat.
James: You have this clear purpose. Your eyes are shining.
Martha: It’s about time. I’m poised!
James turns on his music.
James: Everything works so well up here. You know, I have this progression. It’s not really a progression. But Beverly thinks it’s nice. What do you think?
Martha: It is nice.
James: But really?
Martha: It’s like the Brooklyn thing.
James: A little.
James: You didn’t like the Brooklyn thing?
Martha: I did. I loved the Brooklyn thing.
James: But this is actually pretty different.
Martha pauses to listen.
James: You don’t think?
Martha: (convincing herself for his sake) It’s coming.
James: It is, isn’t it?
Martha: It is. It’s all coming.
James: (convincing himself) I know. I feel it. (shutting off the music) I should go into town and get some new strings. You staying all week?
Martha: My nephew is driving in from Indiana so things are getting jumbled. I have to go in on Friday to see my dealer, check out the press shots. Come outside! (She stumbles over a cigar box covered with glued macaroni shells painted gold)
Martha: My macaroni box!
James: I didn’t move it. I thought maybe you wanted to leave it in the middle of the floor.
Martha: I made this two years ago.
James: You turned a corner with that one.
Martha: This one really dismantled my inner pretensions. It stripped my ego so I could focus. I was so scattered and dishonest in my work. Look at this tawdry thing, what a breakthrough.
James: It’s a truthful piece.
Martha: The pasta shells are hilariously grotesque.
James: It’s so tacky.
Martha: I used to think of myself as a Renaissance woman, maybe I’m just Baroque.
James: Go outside. Catch the end of the sunset.
Martha: Come with me. Come with me.
James: I have to get strings—
Martha: Just for a few minutes, while the sun is setting.
James: I have—
Martha: The air is sucking us outside. We can’t stop it. Look at our beautiful world.
Martha: We can skip in the grass. Smoke some pot.
James: I’ll get my coat.
Martha: If life were this beautiful all the time, then they could take that big Jesus down.
James: Where would they put him?
Martha: In a museum.
James: His day off would be moved to Monday.
Martha: He’d welcome the change. Har. Har. Come on, that big Jesus is going to be just radiant at sunset.
James: We all look radiant at sunset. Wow, full time.
Martha: I’m compelled.
Happy French Rap Music Plays.
Morning. The room is messier, wilder. The lard sculpture stares at Martha but Martha paints. She is incredibly happy. She looks outside. She paints. She mixes a new color. She paints again. She smiles. She paints. She gets a pain in her lower abdomen, curious, drinks, sighs and paints. She studies her painting. She looks over at her sculpture with guilt. Time is of the essence.
Martha: Okay, fathead. I’ll get to you in a minute.
Martha exits. There is a knock at the door. Beverly enters with Sam. Sam is in his late forties. He attempts to maintain control over most things, a trait that has brought him success and pride but has caused others to be accommodating and anxious. Being a man of some color, he overcompensates for what he believes society believes to be a shortcoming—this manifests in odd elocution, an oppressive bearing, studied charm and a stilted courteousness. He does not show it, but he is secretly propelled by a low simmering rage that lies in him at all times. Beverly has something important to ask.
Martha reenters with a glass of water, swallowing three aspirins.
Beverly: We aren’t disturbing you?
Martha: Actually— (Examines the painting) I’m just playing around. James isn’t here.
Beverly: Oh, we had something to ask him.
Sam: We’ll come back another time. Martha?
Martha: Yes. My name. Nice to meet you. I’m dirty. Uh--
Sam: I’ve seen you before.
Sam: I’ve seen you coming in very late on Friday nights.
Martha: (Without guile) I’ve smelled your burning leaves. So—
Sam: How many years have you had this place?
Martha: Three or four. James’ll be back—
Sam: I think it’s been five years.
Martha: Yeah. Like three or four. My aunt died. It makes me feel older. Maybe four years.
Sam: It’s been five years.
Martha: Maybe five.
Beverly: It’s changed so much in five years.
Sam: People move. Your aunt was in good health to the very end.
Beverly: I used to drive her to go food shopping. It took forever, but since they built the new Shop-Rite, it’s only a ten minute drive from door to door. So many changes.
Martha: And of course there’s those lost five years.
Sam: So it has been five years.
Martha: If you say so. Well, good of you to stop by. I’m—
Sam: It is a certain pleasure to meet you, too.
Martha: You know, Sam, the leaves you burn. I mean—it’s kind of cool because it’s interesting how the smoke refracts the light, but I love the air up here and your smoke is tough on my nose—
Sam: You have to close your windows.
Martha: I like my windows—
Sam: If you close them, then the smoke won’t come in your house.
Martha: I know. But--
Beverly: You artists are so committed. Look at your nails! How will you get that off?
Martha: I won’t.
Beverly: It’s really something what you’ll go through—for your art! It’s exciting and dirty and who knows what else!
Martha: But what it is Sam is that I don’t want to have to close my windows. You know?
Sam: I have leaves to burn.
Martha: I have family coming. So I’m having a time thing here. I don’t want to be rude, just do me a favor and burn them a little farther away from my house. Is that okay?
Sam: I’ll think about it.
Martha: What’s there to think about?
Sam: I do certain things in certain places.
Beverly: He doesn’t like to change himself.
Sam: And there are the real property issues.
Martha: What are you talking about?
Sam: The leaves may appear closer than they actually are but only because two feet of your driveway runs on my property.
Sam: I’m not bothered by it if you aren’t.
Martha: It’s just two feet. I mean— Let me know if you want me to have it moved. Jimmy’ll be back later.
Beverly: He went into the city?
Martha: No, just into town. He’ll be back soon. You can check in with him later on.
Beverly: What are you painting?
Martha: I’m painting clouds right now.
Beverly: Who would ever think to paint the clouds?
Sam: I could start to burn the leaves on the other side of the house but it’s at the top of a hill and it’s exposed. When it’s windy I will have to burn them in the original location.
Martha: That sounds like a fair deal.
Sam: It is a fair deal.
Martha: Thank you, Sam. I had given up on you.
Beverly: (Looking at the picture) Has anyone else ever painted clouds?
Martha: Lots of artists, yes.
Beverly: Beyond my understanding.
Martha: You like it?
Beverly: Yes. It would look great in a big gold frame.
Martha: I don’t usually frame them.
Beverly: How will you hang it?
Martha: I attach a piece of wood in the back with a hole in it.
Beverly: I went to Chelsea once. Everyone was trying to be so different.
Martha: That’s not it.
Sam: Why won’t you frame it?
Martha: I’m not in that line of work.
Sam: But a picture is supposed to have a frame.
Martha: I don’t care much for frames. If you buy it, you can frame it.
Sam: Is it for sale?
Martha: It will be. But first, I have to finish up my heads.
Sam: Do you sell a lot of paintings?
Martha: Slow and steady.
Beverly: I used to sing in the choir when I was in school.
Martha: You did, huh?
Sam: She still sings. All the time.
Beverly: We did choir stuff. You know—four part harmony—madrigals, The Beatles. It was fun.
Martha: We’ll all have to sing together sometime. James—
Beverly: (Blushing) You think?
Sam: Probably not a good idea.
Beverly: Why not?
A fight kicks up.
Sam: Because you’ll sing louder than everyone else.
Beverly: I will not. I used to sing in harmony.
Sam: Is that what they call it?
Beverly: Don’t judge me.
Sam: I’m a judge.
Martha: (diffusing the anger) My father was a lawyer.
Beverly: I’ll have to practice so we can all sing later.
Sam: Who did he work for?
Martha: Factory people mostly. Represented workers.
Martha: Nah. He just practiced law to support his fishing habit.
Sam: Did he ever take you?
Martha: Oh, yeah.
Beverly: I once got a catalogue from The New School. But I would really like to sing.
Martha: Your dad ever take you fishing?
Sam: My dad wasn’t around much.
Beverly: His parents were separated.
Sam: No they weren’t.
Martha: You don’t have to tell me.
Beverly: He thinks it’s cliché.
Sam: It’s a black thing. You expect it.
Martha: You’re black?
Beverly: He’s just twenty-five percent.
Sam: Enough to make a difference.
Martha: Five years and I had no idea I was living next door to a black man.
Sam: Black as the ace of spades.
Martha: There goes the neighborhood.
Sam: There it goes?
Martha: I was just kidding, Sam.
Sam: You know, in the eyes of the state my property is just as valuable as yours.
Martha: Sam, I was kidding. Thanks—
James speaks as he enters.
James: You can’t fucking get anything done up here. Are we in North Dakota?
Beverly: Hi, Jimmy. What’s wrong?
James: They don’t have the strings I need. It’s James.
Beverly: Martha calls you Jimmy.
Martha: I always have. But it’s James.
James: Hi, Sam. (Pause) Everything cool?
Martha: We were just getting to know each other a little better.
Beverly: James, I wanted to—
Sam: We’ll come back another time.
Beverly: James, we just stopped by because—we wanted to have you over for dinner Friday. To invite you.
Sam: You and Martha.
Beverly: Martha, sure.
Beverly: You and Martha. Can you come?
Martha: (Avoiding) I don’t think I’ll be here.
James: That’s French night. Claudia’s coming up. You’ll be here.
Martha: Oh, French night. I’ll be here.
Beverly: But you’re busy.
James: Another night?
Beverly: Sam goes to Albany on Saturday.
Beverly: But you’re busy this Friday?
James: French night.
Beverly: Because we really wanted to have you over on Friday night.
James: Those French, always getting in the way.
Martha: It’s been planned for a long time.
James: Well—why don’t you join us?
Beverly: But we invited you.
James: What does it matter who starts? We invite you, you invite us next time.
Beverly: Well—okay. What’s a French night?
Martha: A theme night.
Beverly: Like a hay ride?
Beverly: Can I bring anything?
James: Bring some cheese.
Beverly: What kind?
James: Something stinky. Maybe some wine.
Beverly: How fun. We have something—well—is it okay to come early to a French night? Can we stop by before things get going?
Beverly: Okay, then.
Beverly: We’ll see you at French night. I’ll bring stinky cheese and wine. And we’ll talk and eat and maybe sing.
Sam: Yes, we will.
Beverly: James, you are so bright and creative, who would think of having a whole night devoted to the French?
James: Certainly not the Algerians.
Sam: James, I heard they had a gay mayor in Paris. What do you think about that?
James: He never calls.
Sam: We will see you at French night, then. Maybe Martha can catch some fish?
Beverly: She’s not going to be doing any fishing, Sam. See you at French night, Martha. I’ll let you know if we want to buy that painting, right Sam?
Martha: I’ll have to finish it first.
Beverly: But don’t frame it.
Beverly: Wouldn’t want to destroy the uniqueness.
Martha: You can do whatever you like with it once it’s yours.
Sam: Come, Beverly.
Beverly and Sam exit.
Martha: Jimmy, I come up here for the space and the light. I am happy you are up here—but please—these people are vulgarians. I don’t want them around.
James: Isn’t it sad to be such snobs? It really limits the enjoyment one can have.
Martha: We’re not snobs, Jimmy. We’re just better.
James: You think?
Martha: This whole thing with you and wanting to know the people—get over it.
James: Beverly has promise.
Martha: She’s audience. She worships you.
James: Beverly doesn’t worship me.
Martha: You like her doing it, too.
James: And you want Sam to fuck you.
Martha: I do not.
James: You want him to want you.
Martha: No I don’t.
James: You want him to want you—but you don’t want to do it.
Martha: Who knows! I just, no more of these people. I have shit to do.
James: Just one little French night and then, au revoir.
Martha: Good. Do you think this painting sucks?
James: Wait until you finish it then decide if it sucks.
Martha: My lard sculptures are so derivative. I think they suck.
James: They’re great. They’re ironic.
Martha: It’s a fat head with a lard ass. (She turns the sculpture on its pivot) It’s so sophomoric. Where’s the beauty?
James: Look. I don’t know why some things sell. I’m just trying to be supportive.
Martha: Thank you. I really need that. When I was little I was never allowed to create anything. We couldn’t make a mess.
James: My parents wouldn’t pay for my piano lessons.
Martha: My parents paid for mine. Girls look pretty at the piano.
James: Boys look queer at the piano.
Martha: I’m afraid so. (She picks up a sculpture from the shelf) I’m going to put this back in the shed to dry. This is going to make me rich and famous.
James: You will literally live off the fat of the land.
Martha: That’s the title of my one with its head shaped like Texas.
James: Those oily Texans. So ironic.
Martha: I love you, Jimmy.
James: It’s gonna be a great show, Martha. (Kisses Martha on the cheek and she exits) Love you, too.
James picks up the guitar, looks at his music and then looks out the window across to Beverly’s house wondering, “What am I doing?”
Light French Romantic Piano Music Plays.