I could also acknowledge, albeit painfully, that I had taken my talent as far as it could go. Being the pipsqueak who sang his heart out was nice, but it wasn't the same as possessing the kind of once-in-a-generation gift—Mandy Patinkin's range, Leslie Odom Jr.'s pipes, Ben Vereen's feet—that might have kept me perpetually employed on the Great White Way.
Then there were other professional realities. My legendary agent, Al Martelowitz, had finally died this past spring. A week after his funeral, his agency dropped me, citing my paucity of recent revenue production and dim prospects for improving it.
From my inquiries elsewhere, I had learned that the number of elite agents willing to represent me was exactly zero. That effectively consigned me to cattle-call auditions, a process as brutal as it was pointless. Every sign seemed to be pointing toward the exit.
One of my favorite Broadway standards is "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. It's about a young prince who laments, "Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?" While I had landed the part several times— Pippin is short—I had never truly felt his anxiety before now.
My corner of the sky had always been under stage lights. I wasn't sure where I was going to fit in anymore.
So far, my search for a real job had been limited to one cover letter, sent to a former castmate who was now running a nonprofit theater in Arkansas and needed an assistant managing director. But I knew I was soon going to have to stop rubbernecking at the wreckage of my acting career and start adulting. Amanda, my fiancée, was a painter, and a damn good one. She was angling toward a show at the Van Buren Gallery—yes, that Van Buren Gallery.
In the meantime, one of us needed to have a job with a steady paycheck and healthcare. And Amanda couldn't swing that and stay as productive as she needed to be. It was on me to finally put my college degree, paid for by the spoils of a more lucrative time in my life, to some remunerative use.
So this was it. The final curtain. The last act.
The Sunday matinee of Labor Day weekend was, for reasons both historical and practical, the end of the season for the Morgenthau Playhouse, a summer stock theater in the Catskills that had been surviving primarily on nostalgia for at least a quarter century. I was one of two Actors' Equity members in the company, which meant the Morgenthau had splashed "...also featuring Tommy Jump!" across its promotional materials.
Like our geriatric audiences would remember that Tommy Jump had played Gavroche in the first Broadway revival of Les Misérables; or that he had been nominated for a Tony Award for his role as smart-mouthed Jackson in the short-lived but critically acclaimed Cherokee Purples, which had the misfortune of debuting in the depths of the Great Recession, when the last thing anyone wanted to see was a show about a family who had left the rat race in order to farm and sell the ultimate organic heirloom tomato.
(Go ahead and laugh. Then remember that the biggest hit of the last decade was a musical about America's first secretary of the treasury.)
The irony that my swan song was coming in the Morgenthau's production of Man of La Mancha was not lost on me. I wasn't Don Quixote. That would have been a little too on the nose. I was Sancho Panza, because the short guy always gets cast as Sancho. I had been tilting at windmills all the same.
Once the overture began, the performance seemed to pass in an eyeblink. Time onstage always went that way for me. I was soon peeling away my costume, scraping off my makeup, and saying good-bye to fast friends I might never see again. Before I knew it, the stage manager, eager to strike the set, was shooing us out. It was time to confront the rest of my life.
I had just exited the back of the theater, into an afternoon that felt like dog's breath—the last febrile exhale of a steamy summer—when I heard a man say, "Hey, Tommy."
Thinking it was someone who wanted me to sign his Playbill, I turned toward the voice, shielding my eyes from the glare of the setting sun. Through my squint, I realized I recognized his face. It was one I hadn't seen in a long time, one I certainly didn't expect to be grinning at me outside the Morgenthau Playhouse.
"Danny?" I said. "Danny Ruiz, is that you? Holy crap, Danny Danger!"
His nickname back in the day. Entirely tongue in cheek.
He chortled. "Long time since anyone's called me that. I bet no one calls you Slugbomb anymore."
His pet name for me, also a hundred percent facetious. We had been on the same Little League team, or at least we were when my acting schedule allowed me to play. I hit like a Broadway phenom, which is to say I don't think I ever got the ball out of the infield.
"No," I confirmed. "Definitely not."
"Though I don't know, maybe they should," Danny said, shaking my hand and squeezing my biceps at the same time. "You got pretty jacked. What happened to little Tommy Jump?"
"He found the weight room," I said.
"Damn. What are you benching these days? Like two-fifty?"
"No, no. I try not to get too big. No one wants to hire an actor who can't put his arms down."
"Still, you look great."
"Thanks. You too," I said. "Damn. How long has it been?"
"If I'm not mistaken, nine years."
Which is when we graduated high school. I was so surprised by his mere presence, it hadn't yet struck me how out of place it was that he was wearing a suit. On a Sunday. When it was at least ninety degrees.