Trying To Act Normal

by Chris Rostenberg

So I had left the Mamaroneck school system and gone to Hackley Prep, where they made me repeat the tenth grade, but my old friend Liz Gumbinner asked me to come watch her in the school play. Steve was acting in the play and got so many girls all over him! Liz sat in his lap and gave me a wink in the audience. 

And one day in the Hackley dorm, I was watching TV and a commercial came on and Liz Gumbinner was in it and she winked at the camera. And I said, “Fuckit! I’m leaving my prep school, getting back to MHS and get back into the acting program!” It was called PACE for the Performing Arts Curriculum Experience. The other reason I left my prep school was so I could get into a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

When I got back to MHS, I was determined to audition for the school musical Grease. First came the singing part. You went into the auditorium and sang for the theater director/choreographer, Mrs. Zorski, and the musical director. There was nobody else in the room so you wouldn’t be embarrassed. I was embarrassed. 

You had to sing a song from the 50’s, so I sang “Rock around the Clock” from Happy Days. I was so nervous I screwed up the numerical order of our counting system and said, “One o’clock, two o’clock, four o’clock–a–rock!”

Then came the acting audition and we a few of us stood in front of the other students and read scripts from the play. I read for Kenickie, the second-male lead, who was this hood. One of the other actors said something to me in the script, and I said, “Cram it,” and everyone burst out laughing. What I was doing was conflict between facial expressions and tone of voice, so Kenickie sounded really angry and mean, although his body language and facial expression were basically unreadable. The best example I know of this sort of facial expression/tone conflict is by comedian Stephen Wright and actor Charles Grodin who did the film Heaven Can Wait. He dominated me with his will. That movie blew me away as a kid. Warren Beatty is such an adult child.

I also learned this lesson as a child — how to keep a blank expression when dealing with a bully. If you cower, they grow more aggressive. If you get aggressive, they get more aggressive. But if you act calm, they don’t quite know how to proceed, become self-conscious and back off.

Anyway, when I was done with my audition, another student asked if I was familiar with Stephen Wright, who was just bursting onto the scene and of course, this was a total honor.

And I got the part in Grease! This was such a total thrill because I got to play this lunatic punk and sing “Greased Lightening” (although John Travolta’s character sings it in the movie). I found, however, that I was completely unable to dance. I simply could not memorize the steps. (I had ADHD and didn’t know it. When my friends played karate, I had to keep out because I couldn’t memorize the movements. I couldn’t memorize the vocabulary in foreign languages, either.)

Then I got the second male lead in Anything Goes, which they turned into a very bad movie.  I played Sir Evelyn, an effeminate English man. But I couldn’t act effeminate or do an English accent. My girl costar and I were supposed to be attracted to one another, but she hated me and couldn’t hide it, and didn’t like it when I said to her in character, “I have hot pants for you.” I don’t think I did too well with that one.

But then I played in You Can’t Take it With You, which was my favorite play. It’s about a family of odd-balls with one normal daughter; the premise was stolen by The Munsters. I played a Russian dance teacher named Kohlenkhov. I decided to give him a voice from a Buggs Bunny cartoon, to help give me the accent, and one girl thought I really was Russian. While Kenickie had had a bad attitude, Kohlenkov was an enthusiastic spaz. There was a maid in the show called Rheba, played by a girl named Kristan, and I blasted in the door, grabbed her, dipped her down and cried out, “Rhebishka!  Ah, my little Rhebishka!”

One of the other actors in this play was this really cool guy, Paul Faust, and he played the main lead because he was really handsome and funny. He was always really appreciative of my jokes and stories and he was in my English class too and he disagreed with my anti-death penalty oral report. Paul was always going on and on about how someday, he was going to be on a TV sitcom. And guess what? He was! He played himself, Cool Guy Paul Faust on season four of The Office in the “Chair Model” episode.  Isn’t that something?

And I acted in a skit with this girl who I thought could make it in acting, Colleen Quinlan … and wouldn’t you know it, she has been in four movies!  And I acted with this cute preppy guy named Josh Preven and I always thought he could make it in acting too.  And guess what!  He did!  He played Cute Preppy Guy #1 in the movie, Playing Mona Lisa!  Isn’t that amazing?

Then it was my turn to direct a play. I chose The Still Alarm by George F. Kauffman. A couple learns that their hotel is on fire and they react as if nothing is out of the ordinary. It was funny, but I didn’t know how to direct and the teacher, Mr. Fred, who was an award-winning teacher who I liked, was upset that I was directing everyone to act like me. I was so narcissistic I was trying to be in the play without being in the play. Two days before the performance, I asked everyone to do an English accent and they revolted. The performance was good, but I did not know how to direct.

Finally came the senior recital. The moment I was called on stage, a girl in the audience cheered. I played this guy, Conrad, from Stud’s Terkle’s book Working. He was a sneaky bugger who tried to sneak peeks at scantily-clad women and everyone laughed. My father is always disapproving of me, but he said I was the best one. He gave me a book by Lawrence Olivier, but I’m afraid I didn’t read it. I was happy now because now I had some status. In my acting class was Liz Gumbinner and she sat in my lap. Everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

Back at MHS with new friends, however, I wasn’t able to get up a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Craig Teper wanted to be a film director, and you know what? He was! He directed a film on Vidal Sassoon. 

Roger Rothstien was the class president of the Mamaroneck High School Rosie O’Donnell Fan Club and he wanted to be a famous Etch-a-Sketch artist. Guess what! Roger ended up on the Rosie O’Donnell show and showed Alec Baldwin the best Etch-a-Sketch art you ever saw!

Roger asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I was writing a science fiction story about a young man who travelled to parallel universes I told Roger, “I’m going to make a movie out of this story and star in it!” He said, “Oh, pull your head out of your ass and go to college!”

After going to Old Mill Farm to get stoned, me and Craig and Roger found a mole crawling outside my mother’s condominium. I picked it up and stroked it but I let it go because it had no eyes. I tried to get Roger and Craig to understand D&D. “Craig, do you want to be a dwarf, or an elf, or a tiefling, or a drow, or a half-orc?” He said, “I’d rather be a mole.”

Now, I told you my acting career started with Matt Dillon. Well, his younger brother Kevin became an actor too. I used to see him look at his reflection in the mirror on the school’s overpass. I don’t have his autograph, but I know where he wrote his initials on his locker. I just found an article on the internet about him and the headline says, “Mamaroneck Native Kevin Dillon Spotted Eating Pizza in Larchmont.” The subject is SUBURBARAZZI. Isn’t that amazing?

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