Deadlineby Jonathan Baumbach
Cast of Characters
Mr. Quark, a producer...
B, an aspiring playwright/Man.....
Phone rings on a dark stage. Annie’s voice says: Yes?…
I’m sorry, B is not available.
Then we hear Quark’s authoritative disembodied voice from somewhere in the dark.
Quark: Annie, my heart reaches out to you in a manner of speaking, but I have an evening of theater to see to and for those of us in the producing business, mention of the heart is strictly a rhetorical device. My dear, be so kind as to tell your husband that the clock is ticking. Tick tock. Tick tock. It’s put up or shut up time in America.
When lights come on, Annie is stage right, pacing about with a phone to her ear.
Annie: Mr. Quark, how are you? It’s good to hear your voice for the third time this morning. I like it that you sound a little different each time. Very original.…No, I don’t think he’ll come to the phone. And if he does, he’ll promise you anything to get you off his case. He does that with me all the time.…I know. I know. (Silence).
As she speaks, stage gradually goes dark.
When lights come on, the Aspiring Playwright is slumped at a desk on the left side of the stage—a blank computer screen in front of him—talking into a tape recorder.
B: All right, let’s think of it this way. A man and a woman sitting next to each other in a movie theater, fight in subtle ways for possession of the armrest they both share. When the lights come on, they discover they knew each other 30 years ago and in fact had been married briefly.
Annie enters, knocking at the door first without waiting for an answer.
Annie: How’s it going, honey? Is there anything I can get you? (He looks up at her as if surprised to find someone in the room with him.)
B: Annie, you may not want to believe this—is it my turn to walk the dog?—but I think I’ve come up with a viable idea. What day is it anyway? Don’t you have to go to work today? Was that persistent phone ring who I think it was?
Annie: Mr. Quark is not happy with you. He said all they want from you is a 10 minute play, not Finnegan’s Wake.
B: Does that mean what I think it means? No more extensions, right?
Annie: Well, no. Mr. Quark said he’d grant you one more but this is absolutely the last. He says he’s already given you four and, unless his math is faulty, that’s four more than anyone else has requested. You have until sundown, I believe he said, to get him a script or else.
B: What does that mean, or else?
Annie: I can’t imagine. Honey, I defended you. I told him you stayed up all night staring meaningfully at the computer screen.
B: I hope you told him I also have a life and a dog that need my attention.
Annie: Honey, I said everything I could in your support that wasn’t too obvious a lie. So what have you come up with?…This isn’t going to be about us again, is it?
B: Who said it was? Absolutely not. No. No. No…
Stage goes dark. When lights go on, a man and woman are walking out of a movie theater, the man a half step behind trying to catch up.
Man: I don’t want to make too much of it, but my elbow was in place before you even put yours down.
Woman: You talking to me? I’ve always wanted to say that to someone. The man sitting next to me on the left jostling my elbow during the erotic parts was somewhat younger than you.
Man: Friends tell me I look somewhat younger in the dark. Look, it was comfort I was after, safe harbor for my elbow, not whatever it is you’re implying.
Woman: I have the distinct impression that I’ve seen you some place before. Perhaps it was someone else, another bearded moviegoer that bore an uncanny resemblance to you. Do you have a twin somewhere or a clone?
Man: (turning to look closely at her) It’s possible that I know you, though I have that impression about virtually everyone I meet. Sometimes I think there are only 50 people in the world who are being continually recycled at the local cinema. So, where did you go to school?
Woman: Who wants to know? Anyway, what level of school are we talking about?
Man: Let’s start with high school. You didn’t by any chance go to high school in Brooklyn, did you?
Woman: I went to Fresno High in California, in fact was voted in my junior year The Sweetheart of Fresno High, pulling down the honor by two votes. You may have read about it
Man: I must have missed the paper that day. What about college? Did you go to college?
Woman: What’s it to you? I like that better than ‘who wants to know.’ I went to Wellesley and did my junior year abroad in Rome, studying ornithology at the College of Cardinals. You?
Man: Not even close. Where did you end up after you graduated school? What came next?
The phone rings and, before the Woman can speak, the stage turns dark. When the lights come on the Playwright is where we left him and Annie enters his study much as she had before.
B: What did he want this time?
Annie: Mr. Quark said he was theoretically pleased that you’d gotten something going, but, and the but was the essential thing, he thought the play was moving much too slowly to make your deadline let alone complete itself in under ten minutes. He also said a certain post-modernist whimsy—I think I have that right—was eating away, chomp chomp, at the moral fabric of the play.
B: Did he really say chomp chomp? Wait a minute. How can he possibly know what the play is like?
Annie: I may have mentioned this before, dear, and you didn’t pick up on it. Homestand Security has granted Quark a private pipeline into your e-zone. Not to worry. He gave me his word that he would use these powers within acceptable parameters and in the interest of the greater theatrical good.
B: Did he? No matter. It’s hard to find time in a busy day to be skeptical. Look, if Quark wants it faster, I’ll give it to him faster.
Stage goes dark. When lights come on again the Man and Woman are as we left them. This time their movements and speech are speeded up into virtual double time.
Man: You didn’t by any chance go to High School in Brooklyn did you?
Woman: I went to Fresno High in California in fact was voted in my junior year the Sweetheart of Fresno High pulling down the honor by two votes you may have read about it.
Man: I must have missed the paper that day what about college you did go to college didn’t you?
Woman: What’s it to you I like that better than ‘who wants to know’ I attended Wellesley and did my junior year abroad in Rome studying ornithology at the College of Cardinals you?
Man: Not even close where did you end up after you left school what came next?
Woman: I was in Nepal for almost a year, trying to find myself, then…
Man: You were lost?
Woman: No. Yes. Unsettled really. Then I came to New York where I met my first husband.
Man: Before or after you married him?
Woman: If you knew my first husband, you‘d know that isn’t even a slight bit amusing. (Checking him out again.) You weren’t my first husband, were you?
Man: Unlikely but not impossible. What year are we talking about?
Woman: Late sixties, early seventies. We got together, as I remember, the opening night of an undeclared war. I forget now which one. Tragedy united us and tragedy, of a different sort altogether, attended our break up. My first did look a little like you, younger of course and without the beard. He was excruciatingly lovable on first sight.
Man: It couldn’t have been me. I was in Columbus, Ohio at the time, looking for an escape route and you were, you say, in New York. So.
Woman: Not so fast, buster. I remember a time in the late sixties when I was on a flight to San Francisco that stopped over in Columbus Ohio for twenty minutes that seemed like a lifetime.
Man: (after a long pause) American Airlines?
Phone rings as before, rings.
Woman: My darling!
They move toward each other as the stage goes dark. When the lights come on, Annie enters B’s study.
B: What did he say?
Annie: He said…
Stage goes dark.
Quark’s voice interrupts, amped to sound as if it were coming from the heavens.
Quark: Your time is up.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.