The actors were already on stage. They milled about quietly mouthing their lines, trying out different angles and inflections.
A heavy, red-faced man rushed down from the back of the theater and bounded up the stairs to center stage. "Okay, people, listen up. We only have three hours before the evening news. You two, are you supposed to be the worried middle-class couple?" he said. They nodded. He waved them forward. "Wait a minute. Is this a joke?" he said. "How old are you, darling?"
"Twenty-three, but I can play forty-five," she stated with a tone of defiance. Her makeup made her look freshly embalmed.
"Oh, for Pete's sake. Joe!" shouted the red-faced man.
A thin, dapper man eased out from the shadows at the back of the stage. "What do you need, Mr. Bozigian?"
"What did I tell you about hiring your girlfriends?"
Joe smiled a small, guilty smile. "But Janice is a marvelous actress, Mr. Bozigian. She was an understudy at the Maltz Jupiter Theater last season. Great reviews."
"Joe, the girl looks like a cheerleader with a bad hangover." Bozigian turned to the indignant young woman. "Sorry, honey, you're out."
Janice looked daggers at Joe, who lifted his hands as if to say, I did all that any man could do. She stormed off the stage.
Bozigian turned back to Joe and snapped, "Joe, you put me in a jam here. I need a middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty."
"May I suggest Ellen from Wardrobe?"
"Not a bad idea." Bozigian went to the side of the stage and yelled, "Hey, Ellen! C'mon up here."
A middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty – appeared holding a monk's robe. "What do you want?"
"My dear, I need your help and I know that you're a trooper. Come stand next to this guy. Here, give me that," said Bozigian, taking the monk's robe from her and flinging it offstage. "What's your name, fella?"
"Ted, Mr. Bozigian. Ted Adkins."
"Right, I remember you from the Willie Horton gig. Glad to have you on board, Ted." Bozigian steered Ellen into position. "Okay, Ellen, here's the scene. You're Ted's wife. You've been through tough times together and are finally making a good life for yourselves and your four kids. But your health insurance premiums are going to skyrocket and wreck everything. We've arranged for a news girl, Dorothy from Channel 7 Fox News, to work with us when she's doing her Ask America interviews. It's all been greased. She'll happen to stroll up and ask Ted what he thinks of the Democrats' health care package. Ted will look sad and say, 'I don't know how we'll pay the higher medical premiums.' Go ahead and give it a try, Ted."
Ted cleared his throat, assumed a hangdog expression, and drawled, "Our medical premiums will be goin' up. Why, I just don't see how we'll pay them."
"Not really looking for Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath, Ted. Just stick with the script."
"Ellen, your line is 'How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair.' Go on, give it a try."
"How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair," said Ellen in a tired monotone.
"Brilliant, Ellen. You've got acting in your blood. You and Ted go backstage and polish your lines." Bozigian looked around, "Where's Joe?"
"Here I am, Mr. Bozigian," said Joe, once again slipping from the shadows.
"Where's my bum?"
"I have three of them. Okay, guys, step forward." Three slovenly dressed men – one black, one swarthy, and one Nordic – presented themselves to Bozigian.
Bozigian clapped his hand on his broad forehead in dismay. "Joe, you know I can't use a black guy for this. Sorry, sir, you're out. And you, what are you, an Arab?"
"Can't use you for this gig. You're too ethnic. I need a deadbeat version of Joe the Plumber." Bozigian turned to the remaining candidate, a clean-cut man with blond hair. "Swedish?"
"Danish, sir. Tom Johnsen."
"You'll do, Tom. Joe, tell Ellen that he'll need a dirty blond wig. Don't spare the Crisco. And have Makeup give him a splash of blemishes and tattoos. All right, Tom, Dorothy the news girl will ask you if you have anything to say to Congress. Your line is 'Thanks for the cheap health insurance.' Let's hear what you can do."
"Thanks for the cheap health insurance."
Bozigian shook his head and scowled. "No, try again. More attitude. You're a punk, a parasite."
Tom slouched. His upper lip twisted into a sneer. "Dudes, thanks for the cheap health insurance."