Below are the first ten pages of READING LIPS.*
At rise, the stage is in half-shadows. BRYAN McKENZIE and PHILLIP BOHRENSTEIN circle each other, exchanging angry words. The argument subsides briefly and the two men appear to talk reasonably. But Phillip lashes out again and EXITS. All of this takes place in total silence.
BRYAN (to audience): So. Dydja miss anything? Get the part about the eternal class struggle? The discussion of Sondheim and Tolstoy? What of the denouement: too much rage as Phillip stormed off? Not enough? (pause) Oh, you didn't? (dryly) Well, did you grasp that there was an argument? (sarcastically) That's a start.
"Oh, I get it. You're showing us this silent movie so we can experience what it's like to be deaf." (beat) Nah. Find that out from somebody else's play. I'm going to show you that I can understand what's happening even when there's no sound. Because I can read lips. (deliberately) And. You. Can't. (beat) Pay attention.
Phillip and another MAN ENTER. With broad gestures, they act out a skit of friends who meet on the street, exchange words, hug each other goodbye and EXIT. There is no dialogue from them, but this time Bryan jumps in with explanations. When he speaks, the action freezes.
BRYAN: Two men meet on the street. Since we're in Manhattan, assume they're gay until proven otherwise. (beat) First guy says, "How ya doing?" Second one says, "Same old, same old." Now the second guy says, "Did you hear about that terrific new play, Typing in the Dark? "
Bryan becomes engrossed watching the discussion. After a moment, he becomes aware that the audience is waiting for him.
BRYAN (continued): Sorry. Yes, I suppose it's an invasion of privacy. But it's fun. Besides, it's the only way I can catch up on the things that all of you hear waiting on line at the photocopy machine.
You've figured out I'm deaf. So is Phillip. But don't panic - that doesn't mean we can't hear anything. It just means we can't hear as well as you. And if you've been paying any attention, you've figured out I'm gay. So is Phillip. So what do we have here: Two deaf, gay men? Or two gay, deaf men? Hearing-impaired faggots? Or hard-of-hearing homosexuals? Are we gay men who happen to be deaf? Or deaf men who just happen to be gay?
Bryan regards the audience seriously.
BRYAN (continued): That is not some theoretical question. Because all of us tiptoe through other people's cultures - trying to figure out where we fit in. C'mon, you do too. If you grew up practicing the violin and wanting to play football, you had to decide, right? If your mother was Catholic and your father was Jewish, did you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah? If you grew up gay and deaf, did you identify with being gay first or being deaf? (beat) They say you embrace the culture that's hardest to love. And it's a lot harder to be gay. So, for Phillip and me, this was a no-brainer: we were gay, deaf men. For me, too. Always. (beat) Maybe. Until now.
After a moment, he takes the audience into his confidence.
BRYAN (continued): I don't usually tell people this, but my birthday is coming up next month. Not saying which one, but it's in round numbers and there's a four in it. No more hints. But it's the one where you take inventory in your life, you know? And over the last few months, I've been trying to figure out why all around me, everything is changing. (beat) Yeah, right, I know: change is good. But when you're 40, you don't start celebrating Hanukkah after a lifetime of Christmases. You don't begin a music career after pro football. And if you grew up thinking of yourself as gay, you don't just start being deaf. Because I don't think we can change the defining experiences of our lives. (beat) And that's what Phillip and I were arguing about.
Lights change. The story proper is about to begin.
BRYAN (continued): If we're going to figure out whether we're gay men who happen to be deaf, or deaf men who just happen to be gay, the place to start is at the beginning: how did I meet Phillip?
Phillip ENTERS and sits in one chair. (Note: they are nine years old.)
BRYAN (continued): Rosewood Institute for the Deaf, somewhere in Ohio. I hated that word: "institute." My folks couldn't afford to pay, of course, so Rosewood took me on as a hardship case: tuition, room and board were covered. All I had to do was study hard, never say the wrong thing and be perfect in every way. But, hey, don't worry: I'm Catholic. (beat) It was the first day of class and we were in one of those neo-tacky, 1960s chapels, listening to the headmaster, Dr. Ira Hackenbush - his voice booming over the P.A. Meanwhile, behind me, someone was keeping a running commentary about which promises Hackenbush would keep.
Bryan takes a seat and stares ahead, straining to hear the speech.
PHILLIP (hums to himself; perhaps he repeats it): "I can't get no-o-o satisfaction I can't get no-o-o " (he fidgets) Oh, sure, Groucho. Like you're really going to spring for a new mimeograph machine for the school paper.
Bryan turns around uneasily.
PHILLIP (continued): He's not! Don't believe everything you hear the first day.
Bryan turns back. Phillip drums his fingers and picks his nose.
PHILLIP (continued): Ah, let someone else talk. (to Bryan) What're you looking at?
BRYAN: I can't listen to you and him.
PHILLIP: I'm not talking that loud.
BRYAN: I can hear every word.
PHILLIP: Can not!
Bryan turns back.
PHILLIP (testing Bryan): Asshole.
Bryan turns around.
PHILLIP (amazed) I was whispering. You can't hear me.
BRYAN: I'm whispering and you can hear me.
PHILLIP: You're right! What's going on?
BRYAN (to audience): The physics of sound transmission would have to wait until high school. Simply put, Phillip's and my voices were at pitches each of us could hear perfectly. A fire engine could park outside the dorm and we wouldn't miss a wink. But when we whispered, I could hear his voice as well as I could hear my own. "An anomaly of nature," Dr. Hackenbush used to say as he tried to keep us in separate classes.
Phillip moves his chair next to Bryan.
PHILLIP: Can you hear old Groucho well enough?
BRYAN: I think I could hear him back home in Nebraska.
PHILLIP: He's been giving the same opening day speech since I was five: "You will not be taught sign language because you will be mainstreamed."
A timed beat. Phillip points at Hackenbush. Bryan cocks his ear and slowly looks over at Phillip with awe.
PHILLIP (continued): Give your folks that line about how you'd look like a monkey if you tried to sign?
BRYAN: And they agreed.
PHILLIP: There's more brainwashing here than in China. Don't worry: we won't learn sign.
BRYAN: Good. We're not supposed to.
PHILLIP: But maybe we should. Another language is always an advantage.
BRYAN: We're not going to, so what's the point?
PHILLIP: You're right: we're not going to learn - in class. But there are other ways.
BRYAN (beginning to think Phillip is just obnoxious): Oh, sure.
PHILLIP: They've got these books that show you everything. I already know the manual alphabet.
BRYAN: You're going to smuggle this book in a false-bottom suitcase and hide it in your room?
PHILLIP: Already have.
BRYAN: Have not!
PHILLIP: Have too!
BRYAN: Have not!
PHILLIP: Okay. Forget it. But when I'm a senator and you're still sweeping floors, don't say I didn't warn you.
BRYAN: Where is it?
PHILLIP: Just told you: my room.
BRYAN: Where in your room?
PHILLIP: Not telling you.
PHILLIP: Wanna see it?
BRYAN: We can't leave. Dr. Hackenbush isn't done.
PHILLIP: All the more reason.
BRYAN: What if they catch us in the hall?
PHILLIP: It's your first day and you're sick. I'm taking you back to your room.
BRYAN: Why can't you be the one who's sick?
PHILLIP: Because I've been here since I was five and they know I'm the one who makes everybody else sick. Now we get up real casual and back ourselves towards that door.
BRYAN: No one's gonna stop us?
PHILLIP: Just keep repeating: "I'm sick and Phillip is taking me back to my room."
BRYAN: That your name? Phillip?
Phillip beams and nods. They back themselves towards the wings.
BRYAN (continued): Gee. I've never done this before.
PHILLIP: Neither have I.
BRYAN: You said you had!
PHILLIP: Did not! Said you wouldn't get caught. What's your name?
BRYAN: Bryan. McKenzie.
PHILLIP: Okay, McKenzie. Let's find that book!
BRYAN (to audience): Phillip and I pored over Say It With Sign all that year. It remained our secret until one day in sixth grade. We were doing book reports, and fortunately there was some leeway for the blossoming artistes among us.
BRYAN (continued): I fear too early; for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night's revels
And expire the term of a despised life, closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death
But he that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail.
On lusty gentlemen!
Bryan's delivery is over the top. Phillip looks on, appalled. He clears his throat.
PHILLIP: My report is on a book that had a great impact on me. It would probably have the same impact on you if you were allowed to read it. It's by Dr. Marguerite Lowell, and it's called Say It With Sign.
Bryan's head whips around. Phillips signs some words in ASL.
PHILLIP (continued): Are these words as valid as French or Latin? Do they represent a vibrant culture? Do I ask you to imagine the potential of deaf people? No, that's what Dr. Lowell asks. Twenty years ago, Negroes sat in the backs of buses. Today we embrace their (signs) black culture. A few years ago, we all had crew cuts. But that changed without a revolution. So isn't it possible - isn't it just worth considering - that those who want to learn sign could do so? (beat) Of course, we know this can't happen because in his book, Mainstreaming for the Highway, our own Dr. Hackenbush says all these learned doctors are wrong. And Dr. Hackenbush knows what's best for us. Any questions?
After a long pause, Phillip responds to an unheard voice.
PHILLIP (continued): Yes, Mr. Hartwell? No, sir, I don't believe I know the meaning of "irony." "Sarcasm?" Well, I may have heard that word before. (fidgets) "F?" Isn't that the grade some teachers give to students who don't use their God-given talents to think for themselves? (beat) Yes, sir. I know where Dr. Hackenbush's office is. I've been there before.
BRYAN (to audience): Until now, I had always gotten B's in English. But with this, I moved into the pantheon of A's and the presidency of the Drama Club. My life's course was set. Phillip received a D minus minus minus and a summons to Groucho's office on Parent's Day. In fact, only one thing kept him from being expelled.
PHILLIP: No offense, Bryan, but I'm a paying student.
BRYAN: Phillip made the mistake of bringing Say It With Sign to class that day, where it was swiftly confiscated. The following year, I picked up with George S. Kaufman and Stanislavsky - probably the only time they were ever studied in tandem. Phillip started in on Gore Vidal - yep, in the seventh grade. The year after that we taught each other chess, and spent many hours in the late afternoon sun.
They sit at their game, rarely looking up from the chess board.
BRYAN (continued): How can you be sure they won't miss us at chapel?
PHILLIP: Groucho's in Cleveland.
BRYAN: Oh? Miss Minkwell is passing his schedule by you for approval?
PHILLIP: I saw her telling the new librarian. They're skipping too.
BRYAN: Ever wish you weren't deaf?
PHILLIP: A subtle segue... I'd watch your Queen's Rook if I were you.
BRYAN: What would you not give up to have perfect hearing?
PHILLIP: Give up to have perfect hearing?
BRYAN: Not give up. What would you not give up to have perfect hearing?
PHILLIP: What are my choices?
BRYAN: You make your choices. Would you give up living in California?
PHILLIP: To have perfect hearing? In a New York minute!
BRYAN: I'd give up Nebraska.
PHILLIP: Who wouldn't?
BRYAN: Give up being American?
PHILLIP: Sure. As long as I could live here.
BRYAN: No, no. You have to live somewhere else too.
PHILLIP: I don't know. No more baseball... But - to hear: yeah.
BRYAN: I would. Give up -
PHILLIP: Does this have a point?
Bryan takes a piece off the board.
BRYAN: You just left that Bishop standing there. We keep going until we find something we would not give up. Kind of a measure of how important hearing is. Give up being able to see?
PHILLIP: Helen Keller once wrote that the sense she missed most was hearing. Though what she could compare it to I'm not sure. Both eyes?
BRYAN: Some choices aren't so easy?
PHILLIP: Boy, I can end this real fast. Give up being white?
BRYAN: You mean like Caucasian? But that's not going to happen.
PHILLIP: Just a game, Briny.
BRYAN: Maybe. For perfect hearing? Yeah, I would.
PHILLIP: Braver than me.
BRYAN: Here's the stumper: give up your chance to be a lawyer?
PHILLIP: What else could I do?
BRYAN: Bus driver. Telephone repair. The world doesn't revolve around lawyers.
PHILLIP: Wait'll I get sworn in.
BRYAN: But suppose you could have perfect hearing? Would you give up being a lawyer?
PHILLIP: No, here's the stumper: what if you could be sure your hearing never got worse?
BRYAN: Why should it? (beat; he looks up. It registers.) When?
PHILLIP: By the time I'm 40. Maybe sooner.
BRYAN: That's a long way off.
PHILLIP: Not long enough! Check. (smiles) Maybe that's why the Bishop was "just standing there." (beat) Last summer, Dr. Beagle-ears or whatever his name is called my folks in to tell them. I sat in that booth, reading their lips through the window.
BRYAN: Like Hal in 2001.
PHILLIP: Yeah, like Hal. He told them, but he never told me. (beat) Ready? It's getting dark.
BRYAN: But we haven't finished the game.
PHILLIP: Which one? I'll teach you notation so we can pick chess up later. The other game will never be finished.
PHILLIP: Have you found anything you would not give up to have perfect hearing? Now, the back row is called
BRYAN (to audience): Each weekend brought a ritual more durable than Ed Sullivan or a Sunday night bath. Naturally, we procrastinated until the last minute.
Phillip is on the phone. He fiddles with a three-minute egg-timer.
Yes. No. Yes. No. You betcha. (pause) No. Yes. No. No way.
He hangs up. Bryans shakes his head in amazement.
BRYAN: The same thing. Every week. Times two.
PHILLIP: Same questions from both of them. "Did you go to temple?"
PHILLIP: "Are you coming home next month?"
BRYAN: Like they want you.
PHILLIP: "Bowel movements regular?"
BRYAN: Every week?
PHILLIP (mock pride): That's my mom. "Need any money?"
BRYAN: You may not, but I do
PHILLIP: Then Dad: "Go to temple?"
BRYAN: And you tell him "no"?
PHILLIP: Change of pace. "Call Grandpa?"
BRYAN: Yes, because he's worth a fortune.
PHILLIP: "Do you need a subscription to National Review?"
BRYAN: Send me the money instead?
PHILLIP: "Not having any impure thoughts, are you?"
BRYAN: Perish the thought.
Bryan takes deep breaths. Phillips grabs his shoulders.
PHILLIP: You can do this.
BRYAN: Don't you think it's strange that we can hear on the phone?
PHILLIP: It's about pitch, not volume. And we've mastered the fine art of listening - filling in the blanks. Besides -- . (realizes) Hey, stop stalling. Ready?
BRYAN (psyching himself up): I can do this. I can do this. Okay, ready.
PHILLIP (picking up the thread of a familiar topic): Wait! (thinks it through) Uh Thirty seconds. Or less.
BRYAN: Twenty-five cents?
BRYAN: Then I'm not doing the double-or-nothing.
PHILLIP: All right. Twenty-five.
Bryan dials the phone and turns the egg-timer over. Occasionally, he tries to shake more sand into the bottom portion. GEORGE McKENZIE ENTERS, with a telephone.
GEORGE: Briny! Good to hear your voice. (calls off-stage) Margaret? It's Briny. (into phone) Wish you called earlier. Your mother's already gone to bed.
BRYAN (always has to ask his father to speak up): Can't hear you, Dad.
GEORGE (louder): I said, Your mother's already in bed.
BRYAN: Ed Sullivan isn't even over. What's wrong?
GEORGE: Oh, nothing. Just that cold.
BRYAN: Well, better not hold you up.
GEORGE: You just got on the phone, fer crying out loud. Can you stand talking to your old man? How's the weather?
BRYAN: Okay. Some rain. Not much. (beat) Uh how's the weather out there?
GEORGE: Ugh. Hotter 'n hell. Reminds me of when I took R & R in Yokohama during the war. 'Course I was stationed in Seoul, but -
Bryan's head drops wearily.
PHILLIP (crowing): He's talking about it already, isn't he? He said the K word, didn't he?
Bryan digs two quarters out of his pocket and gives them to Phillip.
GEORGE: Got there in June and the temperature must have been -
BRYAN: Must have been hot, Dad. Anything else?
GEORGE: Did I tell you that your brother is co-captain of the football team?
BRYAN: Yeah. I think you mentioned that once Or thrice.
GEORGE: They don't have football at Rosewood, do they?
BRYAN: Not yet, Dad. But we're still circulating that petition. Like to talk longer but my three minutes are up and there's a long line of guys waiting.
Phillip looks around the empty room.
GEORGE: You take care now, son. I love you.
BRYAN: Yeah, right. Me too.
He hangs up. Phillip is examining the quarters.
PHILLIP: Hey, this is one of those bicentennial jobbies.
BRYAN: Spend it wisely because I'm not booking any more bets on such a sure thing.
PHILLIP: Does he know the Korean War is over?
BRYAN: Just make sure you say "war" and not "conflict". Besides, we still have troops there, as he'll be happy to tell you.
* NOTICE: Professionals and amateurs are hereby cautioned that READING LIPS is fully copyrighted. Use of any kind, including but not limited to production/reading, printing or storage, is prohibited without written permission from the author.
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Copyright © 2005 Michael Conley. All rights reserved.