Cardinal Players

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

We all knew somebody like Scooter Thomas: the kid who was always getting called to the principal’s office in grade school, who sassed the PE coach in junior high, never seemed to study, cheated on his tests, and never got caught. The one who got drunk on illegally bought beer and went careening down the street in his father’s car, blowing the horn, puking out the window, but never had an accident. The one who smoked dope all the time, dropped out of the local college after two years, and went to work for the post office. Who got extremely depressed when his girlfriend left him for the big city. Who had one ripsnorting final confrontation with his father that led to his ejection from the house. Who spent the last of his money on a beater and set out for the west coast.

The toughest part of dealing with this person was that even while he embarrassed the hell out of us every time we appeared with him in public, we still sort of admired him. Subconsciously, we recognized him as a direct descendant of the quintessential American hero–Huckleberry Finn, or Tom Joad, or the mythical cowboy. An anachronism. So we wrote to his mother asking after him, maybe even gave him a call once in a while, just to let him know that someone would be there to show him the territory on the day he finally got tired of screwing up and bowed to the demands of 20th-century civilization.

But the title character of Peter Parnell’s Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World never bowed. The play opens with Scooter’s best friend, Dennis, a successful architect, hurriedly packing funeral clothes. Scooter, it seems, has either jumped or fallen off a mountain somewhere in California. As Dennis goes about his preparations, he is joined by the ghost of his friend, and they share with us memories of their long friendship–memories in which falls from high places play an important part: their boyhood hiding place high up on a mountainside in their native New York State, an alcohol-fueled evening when they almost drove off a cliff, and Scooter’s fascination with climbing, possibly symbolic of his struggle to live up to the example set by his older brother, to whom he is constantly and unfavorably compared. Dennis has his nightmares too. As the two of them get stoned, Dennis speaks of watching his grandmother die: “One minute I was talking to her, and the next minute I was still talking but she was dead. The dying wasn’t the worst part–it was the sense of obligation.” Scooter, true to form, has dozed off during his friend’s heartrending narrative.

Dennis’s training as an architect hasn’t equipped him to deal with his sense of obligation. Scooter accuses him of always judging others “just like all the rest, who spent so much time telling me how to live my life that I couldn’t breathe.” And Dennis defends himself: “I had every right to judge you. Anyway, you’re dead, so just go away. I won’t feel responsible just because you slipped again.” Scooter replies, “But what if that’s what I wanted?” Dennis eventually comes to accept his friend’s decision to die. As Scooter points out, the hardest part of reaching the top of the world is coming down again.

Parnell wrote this play in 1975 at the age of 23, and it is unmistakably a young man’s play. It is also a young playwright’s play, with occasional literary shortcuts (Scooter’s big brother is named Wally and his best friend is Eddie, just like Leave It to Beaver; this production also has Scooter and Dennis toking up to the strains of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” just like in Platoon). This youthful play could easily come off as just another buddy-buddy cry into one’s beer (popularized by The Big Chill and its ilk), but not given the finely honed skills of Kevin Ford Carty as Scooter and Steve Geyer as Dennis, under the direction of Ralph E. Scott (all of whom are recent graduates of Ohio’s Otterbein College–testimony to the quality of its theater department, I guess). Carty has a bright-eyed manic quality that’s perfect for Scooter; he grabs onto Scooter’s personality with both hands and never lets go. But Scooter is only one character–dead and therefore unchanging–and Carty’s performance cannot help but be overshadowed by that of Geyer, who is called on to portray not only Dennis, but also all the other formative figures in the lives of the two boys, including parents, siblings, schoolmates, teachers, coaches, and principals (no girlfriends, though). The protean Geyer carries out his duties with precision and agility, changing characters and focus in the space of a dozen words or less. At one point he is Scooter’s father in a towering rage, jaw clamped and lower lip trembling. Then he walks upstage and turns some five seconds later as a cheerful Dennis home from graduate school in London. I’ll swear his face was 20 years younger when he turned around.

Scott’s keen directorial observation is apparent in the nicely modulated timing of both actors–the mercurial characters’ identities and ages are always clear and distinct. The newly formed Cardinal Players, under the expert stage management of Kendra K. Scott, have made the most of their minuscule budget (under $300, I’m told) in producing a show that’s technically spare but well crafted.

Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World is now touring high schools in New York State; it is intended to be helpful to adolescents trying to understand themselves and one another. Parnell has been quoted as saying that he hopes adult viewers of his play will be moved to phone some old school chum and ask how he or she is doing. I probably won’t–too many of the Scooters I knew have already jumped off their mountains. But I do look forward to what the mature playwright will have to offer at the Goodman later this year.