Writings from Truckin'


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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Opening night jitters and spinning the wheel

Moving to Vegas, I knew all of two people: my DC friend Kathy (whom I haven't seen for awhile because temperatures are too hot to go walkese in the mornings) and my DC friend Jenna.

Soon I'll have another friend Dave, another DC transplant, writer, and fellow poker player.

Whenever I'd visit Vegas the past few years, I'd meet up with Jenna and catch up on what was going on in our lives. But for this or that reason, we haven't been able to hook up since I moved.

Jenna directed my first play years ago. She held auditions at her apartment, and I sat in on a few of them. We had the female character but we needed to find someone who could play her father, and it was difficult to cast someone who had the right chemistry. Particularly for this character, who had to walk the line of being a possible lover as well. Certainly a challenging role, and an enigmatic play that intentionally leaves questions. But also a play that if not done right, could easily fall apart.

When I was buzzed in, I heard an argument upstairs. It became louder and louder, and I realized it was coming from her apartment. And then I realized the argument was lines from my script!

That's what good acting, even cold reads, can do: make your writing live off the page that even the writer doesn't recognize it. It's also the reason I never had an inclination to direct anything of mine, because I always want to see things I didn't see before. Good actors will take the phone book and make it sound like Shakespeare. I don't know how they do it.

One actor with a menacing look and a weird bloodshot eye that he kept apologizing for brought us a dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. The bribe was just enough to tilt me into giving him the thumbs-up, but Jenna suggested we hold out and wait for one more. He arrived late and apologetic, though with clear eyes. He ate a jelly doughnut, picked up the scene, had a second to scan it, and gave a cold reading that sounded like he'd lived the character for breakfast.

Jenna and I exchanged glances and knew he was the one. We offered him the part immediately, and he took the script home with him to review before accepting. (I later learned he juggled some other acting gigs to accommodate.)

The play was rehearsed in Jenna's apartment basement laundry room. She blocked the action using washers and dryers as markers, and I contributed a trenchcoat as a prop to make the male character appear older. Her massage table acted as a bed.

I was a complete wreck at tech rehearsal, because none of it seemed to be working. It was difficult to hear what the actors were saying; the acoustics in the laundry room sounded better than the theater. What made it worse was they were flubbing lines and goofing around. Like an excited father and his newborn, I brought my video camera to tape it, and they were playing to the camera. I had to shut it off.

Still, I had confidence in Jenna. An actor herself, she knew how to speak to actors, and they normally listened. During the day, she was in the middle of assistant directing artistic director Howard Shalwitz on an Amy Freed premiere (and a Pulitzer finalist) at Woolly Mammoth. They workshopped it in New York (where Howard would later remount the play), and would talk about that play and mine on the drive there and back.

It's just that the actors were out of control.

Jenna had to leave but said she would give them a pep talk before the opening... which was later that night. She suggested I try to take their minds off the play somehow.

I took them to dinner and while walking through Dupont Circle, got a kick out of hearing them transpose lines from the play to our surroundings, somewhat similar to a child speaking jibberish and working through the language.

I'd seen the male actor before in at least a dozen shows including Equus, which won him awards. The female actor I was unfamiliar with, but she was equally talented. I knew they would both be good, if they could just focus.

I tried diverting them from conversation about the play. We talked about acting, food, restaurants, DC... we would've talked about poker and gambling, though I wasn't insane about it then. I mentioned in passing that the same play had been picked up to be produced at a theater in Maryland, as well as a staged reading in New York.

I was touched when they thanked me for the script, the characters, and the experience. In the back of my head I was thinking, if they're that thankful, why can't they concentrate enough to pull it together?

They paid for my beer and chicken parmesan, and we got to the theater 15 minutes before curtain. Jenna was nowhere to be seen but finally arrived with the box of props 5 minutes before. I excused myself and joined a dozen of my work friends and other friends in the audience. I was too nervous to speak, or remember anything that they said before or after. All I can remember is looking for the Exit sign, just in case.

The theater was sold out. Howard was in the audience. This was the first time I'd ever see a play of mine performed. I feared the worst.

Then the audience hushed, the lights came up, and other one-acts before mine went on. I couldn't even tell you what those plays were about, just waiting for mine and stewing in dread.

Mine came last and when lights went up, I remember noticing how starkly different the look of the show was, compared with the plays before it.

It appeared cold, antiseptic, black-and-white. All in a good way.

I remember feeling the difference in the audience, a sort of electricity that wasn't there earlier, as I could somehow feel them sit up and pay attention. The actors seemed to be working off the audience, an element that wasn't there in tech.

I remember getting the same choked-up feeling that I did while writing it. I tried looking at reactions in the audience, and in my imagination, I felt they experienced the same thing.

And the actors who I'd just shared beers with, who tripped over words and seemed they needed another few days of rehearsal... not only did they pull it together, but man, they knocked the damn thing out of the ballpark.

I had nothing to worry about.

As the lights dimmed, there was a silence and then applause. I found myself shaking hands and being congratulated. Heading backstage, I overheard people excitedly talk about their interpretation of what happened in the play. I heard disagreements and reasons why. All things I'd hoped for while writing.

When someone found out I was the writer, she took my hand and said at one moment she had a single tear running down her cheek, and thanked me for that.

I met Howard for the first time and he said I should feel free to submit anything to Woolly.

I hugged my actors and told them how remarkable they were, and I meant it.

I asked Jenna what she said to them before curtain, and she shrugged. Straight and to the point, she told them: "Cut the shit and go out there."


Flash forward some years to this past Friday.

I've just finished two sessions of a slot tournament at Sunset Station (scary scores that, combined with my third session on Saturday, resulted in not placing at all on the scoreboard, enough that I skipped the awards ceremony despite the free food and door prizes). I'm eating a late lunch/early dinner at Panda Express while flipping through Las Vegas Weekly that mentions First Friday, a monthly arts festival every first Friday of the month.

Jenna and I had talked about going to one of them, and I think about giving her a call. Then I realize today is Friday, and it'd be too last minute.

I go home instead and page through a local magazine that features Jenna's photos. I again think about calling, but dog-tired from being up all night playing online, I instead take a nap.

I have this horrible dream that I'm hosting a dinner party of poker bloggers whom I haven't met and go into the kitchen to get orange juice, which I can't find except in the cupboard. As I put ice in glasses, I look out the window and see my car lose its brakes and back out and crash into the house across the street. Then the wind blows it forward, and it takes off down the street. Looking the other direction, there's a massive fireball headed this way, instantly setting fire to that same house across the street. We run out of my house and away from the enveloping fire. People are screaming to take cover in safe places, but I didn't pay attention to where those safe places were, so I don't know where to hide behind. I can feel the heat behind me and the dust in my eyes. I see part of an abandoned well, and I duck behind it...

And then the phone rings. It's Jenna, asking if I want to join her at First Friday.

Seeming serendipitous, I do and join her and her friends at the festival part of the night off Main Street downtown, where there were live bands, food tastings, and vendors of ice cream and beer. I meet Maria, a stripper/second-year law student who's completely trashed and bumping into me with her breasts. I don't mind this. We look at some art, and she says she'd really like to buy one of the pieces but it's probably too expensive. A guy in a green Hawaiian shirt asks how much she would pay for it, but she doesn't hear him,

She relates the story to the group, and she did indeed hear him but chose to ignore him. She says matter-of-factly that maybe she could get if free if she gave him a blowjob. Then she says she was just kidding.

Jenna's other non-stripper friends are sober, and we head to a restaurant off 215 and Flamingo called Sedona. I get lost a few times heading north, then finally go south on 15 to 215 west and circle all the way back to where I was.

Summerlin just isn't my neck of the woods.

It's a nice place, and we hang outside with appetizers (mushroom spring rolls, fried oysters, jumbo prawns), wine, and dessert (sorbet, apple pie, chocolate cake, creme brulee... apparently they no longer have their chocolate fondue) while catching up, deploring the state of theater in Las Vegas, and bouncing creative ideas off her when asked what I'm writing these days.

She and her friends hate the Strip, but then, they don't gamble either. When introducing me to her friends, she said that I'm learning how to play poker. Which hurt in a way, but then again is ultimately true since I'm always learning. She suggested a job at UNLV teaching playwriting, but she'd be happy for anything that gets me out of poker.

Recently she did a photoshoot of Scott Fischman at his house and said he had a vacant look about him, and while taking photos he couldn't tear himself away from playing poker online.

The conversation makes me starved for more like it, while being reminded life isn't just poker, and we make tentative plans to meet for lunch on Monday. Hopefully I'll be able to see her more often.

Winding up going north again on 215 toward downtown, I call Pauly and find him at Excalibur.


Pauly's been my partner in crime the past few days as we haunt some of our favorite Vegas poker rooms. His last day in Vegas he wants to visit a poker room every three hours, so I'm building stamina for that. Not that I particularly need it; I seem to be able to play at the table for hours without a break, then get home and multi-table online for a few more hours. Red Bull + insomnia + no job = poker.

Friday night we found out Excalibur is doubling their wheel spins for all of this month. This is a huge +EV deal (even more so than sitting and folding for the Stations' bad beat progressive, which is currently over $212,000 and would yield about $400 per player when it hits) for getting Aces cracked, or better yet, winning the pot with quads or better and still spinning -- only one card has to be held. The only other Aces cracked promotion going on is at Tuscany, and there it's only $25. Perhaps this is Excalibur's response to kill their competition? Doubled, the range of wheel wins runs from $40 to $600 (hitting the triple and then $100).

I haven't spun the wheel since December, and figured I was due. "Spin the wheel!" is my favorite thing to say at the table when someone's Aces are cracked, though it doesn't help matters any to the Aces guy when I'm not at Excalibur and there's no wheel to be spun. When my Aces were cracked at MGM, I did find some solace in my favorite phrase.

At my Excalibur table on Friday, three people hit one-card straight flushes and spun the wheel. One received $200 and the applause of the house. He immediately cashed out and left.

I never saw a hand higher than pocket Queens, and they didn't hold up.

One hand I saw a glimmer of mischief as Pauly quickly smiled and looked up at me. He had The Hammer and raised with it. My hand was also The Hammer (but suited), and I folded. When he was reraised, he had to call and the flop didn't help. Cracked again.

Despite bad hands, I somehow ended the session up by the time we left. Neither of us spun the wheel, but there was always tomorrow.

Saturday, I make a special trip to pick up my free ceramic appetizer tray from Sunset while finding out I was a big loser in the slot tournament, where I was just a few points away from getting $25 (last weekend, I got 55th place and $50, a couple hundred points away from $100).

Then went downtown to The California to cash in a slot ticket from last weekend with mamagrub. Met up with Pauly at The Plaza, he bought me shrimp cocktail at Golden Gate, and we headed back to the Strip to storm the castle.

And storming it was.

In the two and a half hours I was there at the 2/6 table, I had pocket Aces a whopping four times. Oh, why couldn't this be a NL table?

Three times they won. Two of those times I flopped an Ace and everyone folded.

The first time, they were cracked by pocket Jacks that hit a set on the turn. As soon as I was check-raised, I knew I was dead to at least two pair and fast-called him down.

Normally I'd be disgusted at making the crying call to see what I was beaten with, but this time all I was hoping for was no Ace on the river.

As soon as he showed his Jacks, I flipped my Aces and said, "Spin the wheel!"

I hopped out of my seat and Pauly followed me to the wheel, where I looked up at it like a monkey bowing to the 2001 monolith.

I printed my name and signed the notebook of fellow wheel spinners, then geared up to spin my first spin in eight months.

Knowing it's heavily greased, I gave it a small spin. Enough to make a couple revolutions, but not enough to spin for 10 minutes.

As it ticked closer to stopping, it went to 20, 25, 35... Pauly yelled, "100! 100!"

It hung on the 20, then flicked one more spot right into the land of the 100 jackpot winners. Which, doubled, is $200.

I shook Pauly's hand and heard a thunderous applause from the other poker tables. Seems they're rooting for fellow wheel spinners to take as much as they can from the Man, a.k.a. MGM-Mirage.

I showed Pauly what I had left from previous bad beats -- no more than $12. Augmented by $200, I had new ammunition to continue playing, and by the time I cashed out I gained back my buy-in and then some. Plus $200.

Now it's Pauly's turn to spin. It's only a matter of time.

And who knows, maybe I can squeeze out another spin of my own. Somehow, though, the applause doesn't seem meaningful of accomplishment. Certainly not as much as in the theater.

But heck, for $200 I'll take what I can get.