18 July 2008

Andrew Weems

When we are young and in college, or fresh out of it, most of us are casting about, trying to discover what we ought to do with our lives. The presence among us of one who already knows, and whose assessment of his abilities and how they may be applied to his future welfare appears in every way to be reasonable and correct, is singular, and it provokes a singular response. We begin to stake some measure of our own happiness on his success, as if he were our proxy. We follow his progress with sometimes more attention than we accord to our own endeavors. We derive a kind of security: one thing, at least, seems certain and right in the world, as we continue to bumble and dream.

And that is why I believe that, if Andy Weems had not become an actor, it is entirely possible that a substantial percentage of his classmates at Brown University would have taken their own lives in despair. And probably we’d have taken his, too, while we were about it.

I reflect on the subject of Andy today, his birthday, as I look over an unsuspected trove of materials pertaining to his one-man show, Namaste Man, which details his experiences growing up in Nepal and in suburban Virginia. If I were a better friend to him (or to you, for that matter), I’d have written about Andy while you still had a chance to get to the Intiman Theater, in Seattle, to see the play. You will have to settle for retrospection.

Like many of my classmates, I flirted with theater, but to spend time with Andy was to be reminded constantly that I was kidding myself. Just listening to him speak, I had to admit that I had no vocal instrument and to confess that I never located my diaphragm. (I may have been born without one.) Meanwhile, even in his late teens, Andy’s supple baritone could project whispers and roars from one end of the Green to another. And he can sing, too.

He shape-shifted endlessly at Brown, as even a partial résumé will attest: a globular Falstaff and a gelatinous Benno Blimpie (roles for which, perversely, he lost weight); an aged, weary Prospero (likely the world’s finest, if not only, 19-year-old Magician of the Isle of Noises) and a vital, athletic Henry II in The Lion in Winter; a jabbering pygmy in Candide, a hulking farmboy in Buried Child, and a Malvolio who made you completely forget that the actor playing him was not in truth six-foot-three and exceptionally lean with a dagger-sharp nose. Seeing him in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, many years later, I knew in advance that his transformation into the eponymous beast would be flawlessly convincing, as indeed it was, though I daresay it came as a surprise to others in his audience.

Even on matters of language, he had me beat. One night after a performance by a beloved classmate of ours, Rosemary Smith, as Maria Callas in McNally’s Master Class, I sat in awe as the two of them broke down every syllable to analyze a speech from Shakespeare. Rosemary and Andy hadn’t merely read the play, they had studied it, taught it, and lived it. Now they discussed how best to communicate his language to others, and I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation. What could I possibly say? “Me like Shakespeare, too. Him good”? No. I kept my mouth shut and tried to learn, not merely to marvel.

Andy is also a helluva writer, and Namaste Man, which I saw in a couple of workshops (one in a “theater” that closely resembled a broom closet), gorgeously combines anecdote, mystery and revelation, while providing him with a forum for what the Intiman estimated to be 40 different characters. (I was too engrossed to count.) These include both of his parents, and although Andy is a peerless mimic, I’ve often noted that in any medium one’s parents are most difficult to portray successfully: one knows them too well. I knew both of Andy’s parents, and it’s as if they, not their son, take the stage for those portions of his play.

I’m not obliged to describe Namaste Man for you, because Andy does so quite capably himself, in this clip that I found on YouTube:

But these are things that anyone who has been lucky enough to attend his performances can tell you. Mine is the greater privilege to know the guy personally, to have roomed and to have double-dated with him, to have attended other people’s plays with him, to have shared take-out Chinese and battered paperbacks with him, to have enjoyed his ecstatic play-by-play of Redskins games. You could float a navy on all the cups of coffee we’ve drunk together. Though I’m one day older than he by the calendar, he once calculated (over my strenuous objection) that because he was born in Seoul in the morning and I in San Antonio in the afternoon, he was already on this planet for a couple of hours when I made my first appearance. That accident of timing doesn’t account entirely for the fraternal feeling, but maybe it’s part of it. Maybe.

Certain aspects of any friendship don’t require publicity, though some day it may fall to me to invent a mythology around Andy, the way his ancestor, Parson Weems, did around George Washington — or the way that Andy invented a mythology around John Lennon, for my exclusive benefit, because I alone was gullible enough to believe him. (Nevertheless, Andy is a devout priest at the temple, and I learned much from him about the Beatles. To this day, we observe the Lennon anniversaries with due solemnity.) But for now, one truth will do.

Andy introduced me to dozens of plays. Some he acted in, revealing unexpected treasures — notably Calderón’s brilliant Life Is a Dream and Shakespeare’s mediocre Troilus and Cressida, which I’ll warrant I have now seen willingly more times than anyone else alive, because Andy keeps getting cast in one role or another. (And I’ll go again: I look forward to his Pandarus.) Others he talked about so much that I was compelled to discover them for myself. That’s how I came to appreciate Samuel Beckett and to derive, for the rest of my life, the paradoxical comfort that lies underneath so much of the playwright’s copyrighted bleakness. As I read Beckett, Andy and I were living in conditions that too-closely resembled those of a Beckett play; years later, I can’t contemplate my parents without recognizing the Beckett characters within them.

Thus Andy shared with me something more important than any single text or individual interpretation: his approach. Thanks to him, I understand that a play is a living thing, the theater a way of being, even if you are not an actor.

While my own career moves have not been entirely unpredicted, they have never seemed to be preordained, as Andy’s have. I really did dream of becoming an actor, too, for a while, but in retrospect I see that my dreams were more comparable to Andy’s own fantasies of quarterbacking for the Redskins. Andy has provided me with inescapable evidence that all the world’s a stage, and that whatever we wind up doing with our lives, we are merely players. And yet, as I say, the world seems righter when Andy is acting in it.