In Villas Veritas

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George Villas in Break of Noon

For years I met George Villas only at parties. He was gentle and likable with that faraway West Sider quality, a vague spirituality I read then as a kind of vacancy. He was great with kids and I always respect that in a single man, but that was about all I knew of him. I think I’d heard he was an actor, but you hear that about a lot of people. If they don’t bring it up at parties, you appreciate them even more.

Then I went to see a play at Pacific Resident Theatre, an unwieldy adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, a Cannery Row sequel intended as a vehicle for adaptation into a musical (which proved in 1955 that Rodgers and Hammerstein had little feel for the pulse of a wino). On opening night, PRT’s 2012 straight-play version was earnest but lumbering, largely a result of trying to stage every moment in the novel; so many characters crammed the set that it was hard to tell one from another…except whenever George Villas took stage. In this case it was George I couldn’t see, inside the character of Jesus and Mary, a sleazy postwar Mexican grocer. I turned to my girlfriend and asked whether that was really him. She said she was pretty sure. I was too, but not quite. It was eerie, an uncanny valley between the acquaintance I knew somewhat and the character I felt I’d known all my life, though he was in just a handful of scenes.

A couple of years later I saw George play Moliere at City Garage, in another cumbersome new adaptation: a clever but relentlessly self-amused bastardization of Bulgakov’s The Cabal of Hypocrites. The production elicited one of the angriest reviews I’ve ever written, and represented a complete vindication of my desire never to see another City Garage production…except for one thing: George Villas was astonishing. In fact several of the actors were very good, but George swept the rafters and the wings. He was gigantic. His easy command of mode and style, his diction and physical control, his absolute credibility as an artistic genius from the French Enlightenment gave me the kind of thrill I always want and almost never get at the theater.

So when, after coming back to town a few weeks ago, I finally got the chance to see George play the lead in Neil LaBute’s 2010 Break of Noon, I went over to City Garage again. It was a weird day for me. I hadn’t slept, up all night to enjoy the dawn of a new romance so intense and troubling it seemed destined either to last forever or to blow like an overloaded fuse. I attended the show with my ex-girlfriend, now pregnant and nauseated. She was amused at my blinking, lovestruck demeanor. I was amazed at every mote in every ray.

Horrifically, Bergamot Station was holding some sort of noisy festival that day during the Break of Noon matinee, the final performance of the run. A DJ-heavy affair. Electronic dance music, pumped through a small stadium’s worth of woofers, infiltrated the essentially quonset-hut architecture of the theater, generating rhythmic pulses of stupidity easily as loud as anything going on onstage. Taking my seat, I wondered how the show could possibly go on. My annoyance was total. My seat was moving. Fittings in the rafters were squeaking…and George Villas came onstage and delivered a ten minute monologue so honed and true it was as if the show were taking place in a dimension unaffected by the events of this earth.

The entire excellent cast played through the outrageous aural circumstance with overt professionalism. And if LaBute still can’t write women, and if City Garage’s resident director did exactly what I would suggest not doing with a play as realistic as this one, still George Villas not only survived the style heaped upon him but flourished. His white-collar asshole Everyman burned through the trappings of presentation and made a hole in me. This portrayal of a man shocked into self-examination resonated too with my bright new day. I fell in love. When he came offstage, in front of his parents I kissed him on the mouth. This happens in that delicate consciousness that comes from being hungover or sleep-deprived, or swept up in emotion: I’ll do stuff like kiss men on the mouth.

George’s performance in that show has lasted longer in my memory than that new romance remained in present tense. That’s life. People are fleeting creatures; a hundred years and they are gone. Art lasts. And what George Villas does I will try to help him do, because any real artist writes my better self and drives me to write me too.