Dennis Brown takes a walk on the other side of the proscenium. 

What happens when a critic takes the stage?

December 7, 2006. Received an e-mail from Deanna Jent asking me to participate in a fundraiser for Act Inc. next March: a staged reading of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. Two of the key roles are theater critics. They want the Post-Dispatch's Judy Newmark and me to read those parts. Hmm.

December 11. So I've read the play. There's a lot of funny stuff here, almost none of it having anything to do with the two characters Judy and I would read. As I weigh my decision, I remind myself that it has been more than 40 years since I last acted. That was in a college production of Peter Shaffer's The Public Eye. The local newspaper critic wrote, "Dennis Brown is a murderer; he killed the show." What's that adage about actors not remembering their good reviews and never forgetting the bad ones? That's a line you don't forget, not that I would disagree with it. I was really bad.

On the other hand, were it not for Act Inc., I likely never would have seen rarely staged plays like Separate Tables and Great Day in the Morning. If I'm going to make a fool of myself, best to do it for a company I admire. So I said yes.

January 26, 2007. For the past ten days I've been typing out the acting script of The Real Inspector Hound in bold all-caps in fourteen-point type. It's brute work, but the sheer act of typing allows you to discover things about the play that elude the eye, which is always in a rush. When you type out the role, it begins to enter your being like a transfusion directly from the keyboard through your fingertips.

In the 1990s, when I worked as an assistant to Gregory Peck, he used to talk about how he wrote out every one of his film parts in longhand. Then in 1997 he was cast in what would be his final role, a cameo as Father Mapple in a TV remake of Moby Dick. Father Mapple only has one scene, a lengthy sermon. But Peck took the role seriously. I remember seeing him sitting in his den with the script, Herman Melville's novel and the Old Testament all spread out before him. He completely rewrote his sermon, drawing on the best of each source, then wrote out the revised scene in longhand on a yellow legal pad. At age 82, Peck was an actor in control of the role.

Monday, February 19. One week till the first rehearsal. I've been reading the script each morning, just to familiarize myself with the words. I'm always amazed by how many different readings any single line can engender. As a writer you think there's only one way a line can be read, but that's never the case. When I wrote a TV movie for ABC a few years ago, Jeanne Tripplehorn was so hung up by my speech, "You there," that she requested a rewrite (which I refused). Now I find myself puzzling over the line, "Er, yes — hello again." How much emphasis do I give to "hello"? And how the hell do you say "Er"?

Monday, February 26. We finally had our first read-through. What a disaster! It turns out that Stoppard did major rewrites between the publication of the reading text (which the rest of the cast is using) and the release of the acting script that I typed up. I felt like an idiot when I couldn't follow the script the other seven actors were reading.

And yet, in the midst of this debacle, there was one surprising moment. Midway through the play, my character finally leaves his critic's perch and enters the action of the play he's reviewing. Even though this was merely a preliminary rehearsal in the lobby outside the Fontbonne theater, the moment I left my chair and stood up, a rush of adrenaline surged through my body.

So this is what actors experience. I had forgotten.

Sunday, March 4. Tonight was a big step forward. We finally got onto the stage. And I was working from the right script, which always helps. Plus I added several props. My character eats chocolates, so I brought in a box of Junior Mints. Last Tuesday night at the Fox I picked up some extra Edward Scissorhands playbills and, through the magic of computer technology, transformed them into programs for Murder at Muldoon Manor, the play Judy and I are reviewing. (Stoppard never does title his play-within-a-play, but this is as good as any.) I suppose props provide a helpful crutch for those who don't know what to do with their hands. But when you're already holding a script, it's tough to eat Junior Mints and turn pages at the same time.

The Act Inc. folks have come up with a great wheelchair for Bob Wilcox, who is ideally cast as the surprise killer. Near the end of the play Bob shoots me. At tonight's rehearsal, in the throes of rank amateurism, I "died" atop Gerry Kowarsky's prone body. (Gerry is playing the dead body, which requires him to lie on the floor for 75 minutes. What a good sport he is to accept this thankless role.) My elaborate death scene rattled Gerry and made a bloody mess of my knees. That will have to be changed.

Monday, March 5. The air was filled with opening-night anticipation. Throughout our final afternoon run-through, set dressers busily spruced up the stage. Out came the potted plant that seems to be the mainstay of every Act Inc. production — which was fine, till they placed it right where I deliver one of my big speeches. I kept mum about it: In a contest between a potted plant and an actor, the plant is going to win every time.

The run-through was followed by that awkward period prior to performance. Normally you would wait in your dressing room, but this was not a normal situation. We were encouraged to mingle with the arriving crowd. That can be a mixed bag. One young actor came up to me and said, "I've been wanting to meet you. I really enjoy reading your reviews, Mr. Wilcox."

I filled some of the time by asking Julie Venegoni if we could re-run our scene together. "I have the sense that it's going too fast," I said. "That's interesting," Julie replied. "I think it's going too slow." A comment like that will give you pause. She's probably right. Experience surely teaches you how to make the adrenaline work for you rather than against.

The performance itself seemed to go well. In her first big love scene with Adam Grun, Liz Hopefl pulled out all the stops and brought down the house. Steve Callahan made a memorable entrance in his clunky snowshoes. Deanna (who had to sub for an indisposed actress) brought gentle humor to the maid. I even figured out a painless way to die. Throughout the show Judy and I were seated onstage facing the audience. It was fascinating to watch their reactions. They knew why they were there: They had come for an evening of stunt theater and didn't demand more. Bless them all.

This entire interlude has been fraught with discovery, but never more so than at tonight's post-play party. All my life I've gone backstage after opening-night performances and listened to actors lie to other actors about how good they were. Tonight I realized the need for all that deception. During the first half-hour after the show, I was inordinately susceptible to praise. This was not a time for objectivity. Tomorrow I will remind myself that I am not an actor. But tonight all lies were welcomed with open arms.

Tuesday, March 6. The production is now history, but the memory is not yet ready to be shelved. This morning I sent an e-mail to Deanna: "I just figured out how to read the line, 'Er, yes — hello again.' Is it too late to call another rehearsal?"

I fear it is, and just as well. If left unchecked, this could get addictive.

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