Thursday, April 26, 2007

Who's Herbert?

In homage to Robert Anderson

Scene: a room. It could be a communal room at a nursing home, or a room at a senior citizens’ center, or the lounge of an assisted living center. Wherever it is, it is comfortable, but with a decidedly institutional air about it.

The two women are seated next to each other. The man is seated off to one side. He faces front, and is still, or he might walk around trying to get their notice—the choice is up to the performer and director. The women are animated. They could be doing hand work of some sort—tatting, crocheting, knitting, sewing. If they are, they use their tools for emphatic gestures.

W1: I think of all of them, I had the best time with Herbert.

W2: You know, I think I had the best time with Herbert too. He was funny.

W1: Yes, he was. Always had me laughing—that sharp wit!

W2: And politics! He had me rolling on the floor with his imitation of the President! Not sure I recall which president it was, though, come to think of it.

W1: Nixon was President when I was married to Herbert.

M: I’m Herbert.

W2: Are you sure it was Nixon? I thought Nixon was president when I was married to Herbert.

W1: No. Herbert and I were divorced when Nixon resigned. He said if Nixon could leave the White House, he could leave me. Said I was as cold as Pat Nixon.

W2: That doesn’t sound very funny to me. A bit cruel, if you ask me. If Herbert had been that cruel to me, I’d have divorced him on the spot.

W1: You did divorce him. Why did you divorce him, anyway?

M: I’m Herbert.

W2: Did I divorce him? I thought he divorced me--

W1: No, Herbert divorced me. You divorced Herbert. That much I remember. That’s how we met. You had me testify at your divorce hearing about how Herbert left me.

W2: Are you sure? I thought you had me testify at your divorce hearing.

W1: No, that was at the suit I filed after you divorced him and he stopped paying me alimony.

M: I’m Herbert.

W2: Oh. Yes, that’s right. And now that I think about it, it was President Reagan that Herbert was so good at imitating. Shook his head back and forth like he had palsy, pretended to forget things, that sort of thing.

M: I’m Herbert. Don’t do Reagan any more. Not funny when he’s dead.

W1: Herbert did a pretty good Nixon too. But he was best just being Herbert. Funny, clever, sweet Herbert.

W2: Until he told you you were colder than Pat Nixon.

W1: Not colder. As cold as.

W2: Could anybody be as cold as Pat Nixon?

M: I’m Herbert. She was colder than Pat Nixon. Literally. Always wore wool flannel nightgowns.

W1: (laughs): Nancy Reagan made Pat Nixon look warmer than Oprah Winfrey!

W2: (laughs, then stops): I don’t think it’s right to compare Pat Nixon to Oprah! Oprah’s really friendly, and she really cares about people. Pat Nixon didn’t even care about Nixon.

W1: Who could care about Tricky Dick? And Oprah cares as long as she’s making millions of dollars. See how much she’d care if there was no profit in it!

W2: What a horrible thing to say! No wonder Herbert said you were cold!

M: I’m Herbert. She was cold too. Why did I keep marrying these cold women?

W1: Well, Herbert said you were cold too. Colder than me, he said. Why is each one of my wives colder than the last one, he said. Since I was only his third wife and you were his fifth, that means you were a lot colder than me.

W2: When did Herbert say that? I never heard him say that! And you’re wrong. I was his third wife. You were the fifth.

W1: He said it at your divorce hearing. And at the divorce hearings of his sixth and seventh wives too. Don’t you remember? We were all at all of them—all the way through number 10. And I was three. You were five. That stupid blond from New Jersey came in between. Never did know what he saw in her.

W2: The blonde was the atheist, wasn’t she?

W1: No. The atheist was the redhead from New Hampshire. She was number six, I think.

W2: Oh, that’s right. I get confused, after all those hearings.

M: I’m Herbert. They’re lying. They didn’t come to all the hearings.

W2: Would you please shut up, Frank? This is a private conversation.

W1: And why do you keep insisting that you’re Herbert? You’re not Herbert.

M: I am Herbert. I’ve always been Herbert.

W2: Well you’re not the Herbert I married. And divorced.

W1: And you’re not the Herbert who married me. And divorced me.

M. I am too. I divorced you in 1974. And you divorced me in 1980. Right after John Lennon was shot.

W1: You’re not Herbert. You’ve never been Herbert. Herbert was handsome. And funny.

W2: And dashing. You’re an old man who has to wear diapers.

M: I’m Herbert. Not my fault I got old. You wear diapers too. Everybody here wears diapers.

W1: That’s a lie! I don’t wear diapers!

W2: Neither do I!

M: So what do you call those things you wear? Bikini bottoms with extra thickness?

W2: I wear panty liners. There’s a world of difference!

W1: So do I. Panty liners are for the occasional mishap. Not for the truly incontinent old poops who can’t control anything.

M: Panty liners, diapers—call them what you will. They serve the same purpose. Old farts can’t move fast enough to get to the toilet. And I’m Herbert. I was married to you both—and to nine other women as well. Every one a mistake.

W2: You’re not Herbert. You’re Frank. You’ve always been Frank. You were Frank when I met you in Ostrander in the first grade back in 1940.

W1: Ostrander? Are you sure?

W2: Of course I’m sure. I’ve known Frank for sixty-six years. But I never married him.

M: I’m Herbert. I never lived in Ostrander.

W1: You’re not Herbert. You’re Frank. We went steady in high school in Ipswich, Massachusetts. You took me to the junior prom. I had the prettiest dress. Yards and yards of blue tulle.

W2: Herbert didn’t take you to your junior prom. You didn’t know him then.

M: I never lived in Ipswich. But you divorced me in 1980. You were a cold woman. You even liked cold food. I got so sick of gazpacho I’ve never eaten it again.

W1: Well, that part’s right. You did make a terrific gazpacho. I always liked the way you used rosemary rather than basil.

M: And I divorced you in 1974. You never let me even buy an electric blanket. Didn’t get one until my fourth wife. And she made me sleep in a separate bed with it.

W2: Your baked Alaska was always terrific too. I always wanted your recipe, but you’d never give it to me. Why was that?

W1: I promised my Aunt Betty I’d never share her recipe with anyone. That’s the only reason she let me have it.

M: Your Aunt Betty died in 1960. Who are you trying to kid? You just never wanted to share anything with anybody. Just as well. Your baked Alaska always gave me frostbite.

W2: Is that true? Did your Aunt Betty die in 1960?

W1: Well, she’s certainly dead. And has been for a long time. Can’t say if I recall if it was in 1960, though. Though it could have been.

W2: So why wouldn’t you give me the recipe?

W1: A promise is a promise. Doesn’t matter if the person it was made to is dead or not.

M: Of course it matters. You always were a selfish woman. And cold.

W2: Would you please shut up, Frank? Stop sticking your nose in.

M: I’m Herbert. And why are you angry at me? I’d have given you the recipe if I’d known you wanted it.

W1: How could you have known she wanted it? She’d never have talked to you about recipes, Frank. How stupid can you be?

M: I’m just old, not stupid. And I’m Herbert. How would I know all these things about our marriages if I wasn’t Herbert?

W1: Well, for heaven’s sake, Frank. You know because you sit there and eavesdrop on our conversations day after day. And you’ve known me since we went steady in high school. You always were jealous of Herbert.

W2: Frank didn’t know you in high school. Neither did Herbert, for that matter.

W1: Herbert took me to my junior prom. I wore blue tulle. I was almost elected junior prom queen. But that slutty Ethel Hodges wore that tight green satin dress with her boobs hanging out and the horny band leader chose her instead of me.

W2: Thought it was Frank who went steady with you in high school. You didn’t meet Herbert until the 1970s. When he was married to that blond woman he left me for.

W1: He left me for the blond woman. In 1974. You left him. Never did know why. Herbert was always fun to be with.

M: I’m Herbert. I didn’t leave you. You left me. For that lesbian golf player.

W1: You never told me you were a lesbian!

W2: That’s a dirty lie! Frank’s just making up lies to confuse us. And to make trouble.

M: I’m Herbert. And it’s not a lie. She was named Babe something-or-other--. You lived with her for two years. Until she left you cold. That’s when you tried to come crawling back to me. And asked for alimony.

W2: Just stop it, Frank! Stop making up these stories!

W1: That was you with Babe? I always wondered about that—there were so many rumors, but nobody could say who the other woman was. And it was you all along! What fun!

W2: It wasn’t me!

M: We’re all so old now there’s no reason to keep on pretending you’re not a lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. And at our age, who cares?

W2: Well, I care! I don’t want people whispering about me. You know how fast rumors travel here. Even if they’re false. And it’s mean of you to lie about me, Frank. You’re just still mad I wouldn’t have sex with you after the prom.

W1: That wasn’t Frank. Frank’s lived in Ohio his entire life.

M: I’m Herbert. I moved to Ohio in 1980, after you dumped me for the lady golfer.

W2: For the last time, Frank, stop it!

W1: Yeah, Frank, stop it! You’ve lived here all your life.

W2: Except when you went to high school in Massachusetts.

M: I’m Herbert. I never lived in Massachusetts. I went to high school in New Rochelle, New York.

W1: You always told me you had sex for the first time after your junior prom. Didn’t you?

W2: Well, yes, but not with Frank. It was at the party.

W1: You lost your virginity at a party after your junior prom, but not with your date? Who was it with.

W2: Ethel Hodges. But we were just experimenting. All girls do that sometimes. I had real sex with Gunner Higgins right after. So did Ethel. He was her date.

M: Sex with Ethel Hodges! Was she the one with the green satin? You had sex with the prom queen? Sounds like you were a lesbo even then.

W2: There you go again, Frank. Just because I lost my virginity with Gunner Higgins rather than you. He was a lot cuter than you. You’re still jealous, aren’t you, Frank?

H: I’m Herbert. And how could I be jealous over something as ordinary as a lezzie high school girl having sex with some dumb jock?

W2: That proves you’re Frank, Frank. How else would you know that Gunner was a dumb jock?

M: Who else would date a dyke in green satin? And have sex with her and her dyke lover?

W1: What are you talking about? Frank didn’t take you to the prom. So it doesn’t matter who you did or didn’t have sex with. He wasn’t there. What sport did this guy play?

W2: Basketball. Gunner was pretty stupid. But he had lovely long legs. And his shoulders! Frank was always a toad in comparison.

M: I’m Herbert. I wasn’t there.

W2: You’re not Herbert. I was married to Herbert. I should know my former husband.

M: I’m Herbert. You’re so blind you wouldn’t know your own mother, let alone a husband who dumped you 35 years ago.

W2: You’re not Herbert. I dumped Herbert. I’d know the man I dumped.

M: I’m Herbert. Lesbians have terrible memories. Especially for the husbands they left when they discovered their real nature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

W2: I can see as well as anybody else here. I can see well enough to know you’re not Herbert. Herbert always wore a beard.

M. So what’s this on my face? Psioriasis? Fungus?

W2: There’s nothing on your face. Except that scraggly bit of hair. Not enough to call a proper beard.

W1: Herbert had a proper beard. I hated it. Scratchy.

M: I’m Herbert. You never told me you hated my beard.

W2: Of course not. You’re Frank. I dumped you at the junior prom in Salem.

W1: Thought it was in Ipswich. But that wasn’t Frank. He was in Ostrander.

W2: Frank was at my junior prom. It was in Ipswich. The party was in Salem.

M: Wasn’t Salem where they burnt the witches? That was sure the right place for you to lose your virginity to a lesbian slut in green satin and a long legged, broad shouldered basketball asshole.

W2: You’re still jealous, Frank. Get over it. It was over fifty years ago.

M: I’m Herbert.

W2: What’s that smell? Smells like piss.

W1: Have you peed in your pants again, Frank?

M: I’m Herbert. The smell comes from my former wives. My former cold wives. Who stink.

W1: (standing): I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to the activity room.

W2: (standing). Me too. (sniffs discreetly). You may want to stop in your room on the way. See you later, Herbert.

( They exit)

M: I’m Frank.

(End of play)