Better is a short play originally commissioned by First Floor Theater for GrimmFest, a literary festival of short plays inspired by the works of the Brothers Grimm. An adaptation of Rumplestiltskin, the play was produced as a part of GrimmFest at the Charnel House in Chicago in 2013. The play was directed by Kellen Walker, and featured Amanda Fink and Fred Schmidt-Arenales. It was commended as “clever with a surprisingly poignant ending” by Chicago Now.
The festival was curated by Will Bishop, Andrew Cutler, and Hutch Pimentel, and included scenic/projection design by Claire Stone, illustration by Briana Finegan, and sound design by Bobby Huggins. You can learn more about the festival here.
by Sid Branca, with apologies to Rumplestiltskin
A cheap bar in an American city, present day.
The alley outside the bar.
two stools or chairs
table or bar
plate or basket of french fries
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
TYLER. Mid-to-late twenties, sort of charming but awkward.
WOMAN. Mid-twenties, friendly but guarded and assertive. (Don't worry, she will be named.)
Lights up on a man and a woman in an empty bar, seated some distance apart. They both have drinks before them, and the man has a plate of french fries. They both stare intently at the same point out in the audience.
A moment passes as they both watch the televised basketball game that hovers invisibly over the audience's heads as we hear the sounds of the game. The man sneaks a glance at the woman. She's pretty. He glances again. He looks back to the game, and someone fouls. The following lines can be ad-libbed and spoken over each other.
TYLER: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? YOU GUYS DIDN'T CARE WHEN HE WAS ALL OVER THE DAMN COURT!
WOMAN: (simultaneously) SERIOUSLY? YOU'RE CALLING THAT A FOUL?? WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, FUCKING SOCCER?
They both realize they have been shouting at the screen, and look at each other sheepishly, then laugh.
The game goes to commercial. The sounds of the game fade out or switch to music. We may hear the game, music, or silence at various points at the director's discretion. The actors can look up at the game and react to it at any time while in the bar.
TYLER: Man, that ref is a mess.
WOMAN: Totally. But this game isn’t as much of a disaster as I expected, after that last one.
TYLER: Yeah, that was pretty brutal. But they’re really going for it, even with Jenkins out with that ankle thing.
WOMAN: Yeah. Hopefully they don’t push him back in before he’s ready, or he’ll fuck himself up again.
TYLER: I take it you’re a pretty big fan.
WOMAN; My dad was. I don’t have cable though, so I always come here to watch the game.
TYLER: So is this one of the better bars around here? I just moved to this neighborhood, I wasn’t sure where to go.
WOMAN: It’s a pretty good one. Where’d you move from?
TYLER: In the city, way up north. It was too far from everything so I moved. Today, actually. I couldn’t stand sitting in an empty apartment full of boxes anymore, but none of my friends would come out on a Tuesday, so I just kind of walked around until I found this place.
WOMAN: I like it. The bartender’s nice, the fries are good. It’s usually pretty empty, but stay away when football’s on.
TYLER: Good to know. Want some fries? I got too many.
She moves closer and takes a fry. They eat periodically throughout the scene.
TYLER: So you’re at a bar alone on a Tuesday.
WOMAN: So are you.
TYLER: My friends are all boring, what’s your excuse?
WOMAN: (avoiding the real answer) I like to watch the game by myself.
TYLER: Oh, I could--
WOMAN: No, it’s nice to have company for a change.
TYLER: (finishing his drink and standing up) I'm gonna get another drink, you need anything?
WOMAN: Uh, yeah, a whiskey ginger.
TYLER: Good. I respect a fellow whiskey drinker. (He pauses briefly, and then, putting his hand out for a handshake) I’m Tyler.
She doesn't move. She thinks.
WOMAN: Here's the deal. You buy me a drink, I give you until the end of the game to guess my name. If you get it in three guesses, I'll go home with you. If you can't, you pay my tab and I go home alone. No cheating.
He hesitates for a moment, then shakes on it.
TYLER: Well I guess I'm gonna go get that drink then.
She sits there, realizing that she has no idea what she may have just gotten herself into. She pulls her phone from her bag, sends a text message. She looks a little concerned, but then laughs quietly to herself.
He returns carrying two drinks, and she puts her phone back in her bag and smiles at him.
TYLER: One whiskey ginger.
They clink glasses.
They watch the game in silence for a moment, the woman visibly reacting to the game and Tyler clearly thinking hard.
TYLER: So okay, I'm guessing you're in like, your mid-twenties?
He is carefully watching her reactions, but they aren't particularly informative.
TYLER: Which means you were born in... ok.... so I just need to think about what names were popular then. Okay. Great. Fine. I can do this.
She watches with amusement. He mutters parts of various names, thinking out loud, trying to remember things.
TYLER: Hey, where are you from? Here?
WOMAN: I grew up all over, but I was born here.
He thinks and mutters some more. It’s mostly charming. Finally:
TYLER: Is your name Jehhhhh--(as if he is about to say Jennifer, dragging out the first syllable while watching her face, then changes his mind)--ssica?
WOMAN: (laughing) Do I look like a Jessica? No, good try though. You keep thinking, I'm going to the bathroom.
She exits, leaving her purse.
He distractedly looks back at the game, until he realizes that her bag is just sitting there. He stares at it, clearly agonizing over whether or not to look for her wallet and find her name on her ID.
She re-enters, but he doesn't see her. She clearly went to the bathroom just to fix her hair or something, because she’s barely been gone. She watches him stare at her bag. Perhaps he starts to move toward it and then stops himself. He sits on his hands. She comes the rest of the way back into the room and sits down again, startling him.
WOMAN: Okay, Sherlock, what're you thinking?
TYLER: Uh, well, so you said you didn't look like a Jessica. And then I started thinking, what do you look like?
She makes a face.
TYLER: I mean, um, like how sometimes you can look at someone, how they have their hair or their sneakers or whatever, and say that dude, that dude is definitely named Jack or whatever.
TYLER: [he describes what she’s wearing, her navy blue sweater, her hair, her purse, etc., sounding very much like a young, not very fashionable man attempting to describe a woman’s style.]
TYLER: Hmm. Well. What’s your favorite color?
WOMAN: Navy blue.
TYLER: Of course. What’s your favorite movie?
TYLER: Oh, one of the best movies of all time, that really helps narrow things down. Can you be a little more specific?
WOMAN: I like the ending. Everyone talks about Casablanca like it’s this big love story, like it’s about the romance, but really in the end it’s about these two fucked up men becoming friends. The message isn’t “love never dies,” or whatever, it’s that even when you’re making terrible sacrifices in a time of war, it’s human nature to find someone else as damaged as you are and make friends with them.
He nods, like this is extremely helpful.
TYLER: How do you like your eggs?
WOMAN: Very funny.
TYLER: You can tell a lot about a person by how they like their eggs.
WOMAN: Sunny-side down.
TYLER: I’ve been eating eggs for a while now, and I’m still not sure what that means.
WOMAN: Well, it’s like sunny-side up, and then you flip it over. And what do you think that says about me?
TYLER: Oh, um, that you... you like to make changes at the last minute.
WOMAN: (amused) Maybe. And how do you like your eggs?
TYLER: Hard-boiled. I like peeling them. I like a good process. I’m process-oriented. I like a slow unveiling.
WOMAN: Wow. That’s a pretty romantic attitude to have about eggs.
TYLER: That’s a pretty romantic attitude to have about Casablanca. But I wouldn’t call it that. Or, well, maybe I would. I think a lot about things when I’m doing them, so I try to enjoy it.
WOMAN: I see.
TYLER: Is your name Sadie?
WOMAN: No, I’m afraid not. Do you think you look like a Tyler? I feel like guys named Tyler wear Vans and have pierced eyebrows. You seem more like a Thomas.
TYLER: Really? I always thought Thomases were kind of assholes. Like someone who wears ties and is good at math and thinks he’s better than you, at math. Your accountant uncle or something.
WOMAN: None of my uncles are accountants. (looking over at the television) One guess left, and you're almost out of time.
TYLER: (looking up at the screen) Shit.
WOMAN: Thirty seconds.
TYLER: Okay, okay, I need to guess something. I can’t not guess, so, okay, I just need to think about what kind of name you would have that would lead you to make a bet like this--
WOMAN: Twenty seconds.
TYLER: it can’t be something actually crazy or obscure, because if there was no chance of my guessing it, it wouldn’t be any fun, there would be no point--
WOMAN: Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two--
TYLER: (blurting something out in a panic) MARGARET.
She looks shocked. A beat.
WOMAN: Oh you piece of shit, you asked the bartender when you got my drink. You've been fucking with me this whole time.
TYLER: I didn't! I swear! Really!
WOMAN: Then how did you just pull the answer out of nowhere at the last second, huh? You know it doesn't count if you cheated.
TYLER: I, um, I don't know, I was running out of time and I just panicked... I just said the first name that came to mind... (embarrassed and uncomfortable) It's my mom's name.
An uncomfortable pause.
WOMAN: Well, let’s just call it a lucky guess. Nice work.
He laughs a little.
TYLER: Do you want another drink? I'm not, like, in a hurry. We can totally keep hanging out here. Or, uh, whatever you want.
WOMAN: Do you smoke?
TYLER: Not really but yes let's do that. (She laughs a little.) Let’s you and I go smoke then. I'm gonna go close out my tab.
WOMAN: I should do that too.
TYLER: Oh no, don't worry about it.
WOMAN: Are you sure?
He exits, and she types a text message. He re-enters, they put on jackets and leave the bar, moving to the alley alongside the bar.
This can be done however the director sees fit: by having the actors walk into the aisle, lit by a work light, by changing the scenery or projected background, by it just being a shift in the actors, whatever. The cigarettes can be real or fake or unlit or lollipop sticks or whatever.
He goes to light her cigarette, and they can't quite seem to make it work. After fussing with it awkwardly for a bit, she takes the lighter from him and lights it herself. They take drags in silence.
WOMAN: It’s a nice night.
TYLER: It really is.
WOMAN: A little chilly though.
TYLER: Do you like spicy food?
TYLER: Whenever I’m kind of cold, I try and remember what hot peppers taste like and it helps.
WOMAN: (after pausing to remember) Huh. That does help. Thanks.
TYLER: You’re welcome. (A pause.) So listen, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, I mean, we can go back inside, have another drink, see how things feel? We don’t have to go right now if you don’t want to. Unless, do you have somewhere to be in the morning?
WOMAN: I’m, um, I’m not so sure this is a good idea. I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this? I mean, I was sort of joking, and then we both went along with it, and I mean you seem fine but this isn’t really how people behave, right? I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.
TYLER: Oh. Sure. I understand. I mean, sometimes you do a thing before you realize what it is. And then you feel caught in a situation you didn’t see coming, and you’re not sure how to backtrack. I get it. And you’re right, that’s not how people behave. People make promises without thinking about what they mean and that they don’t intend to keep because they think it will never really matter. They make bets with the world, and when things don’t turn out the way they want, when it all blows up in their faces, they look around at all the broken shit and say oh my god, how did this happen? This is such a tragedy, such a mess, we never could have prevented this, I’m so sorry, my heart goes out to you.
WOMAN: I am--
TYLER: This is why I don’t take risks, because when I look around I see nothing but ghosts, just shells of people playing collapsing roles and none of them have time for me, because I’m just as bad, I’m slowly rotting apart, leaving traces of my body on bus seats, and bank receipts, and sometimes I listen to someone’s voice and hear nothing but a sine wave, pure and cold and piercing and I have to pretend like it means anything. I have to pretend like I’m okay, like I have a job that I only mildly dislike and hobbies and favorite television shows and friends, and that when I go to bed at night I don’t just lie there just waiting in abject terror, thinking about throwing up until it’s time to start the same day again. Of course you don’t want to touch me, because I don’t even exist, and if I did I’d be disgusting.
She moves to touch him.
TYLER: You don’t want me, even though I played your stupid game, and I didn’t cheat, because you think I’m a trap, but you’re the trap and I played it and I won, but of course you didn’t think, you didn’t fucking think things would ever go any other way than with you on top, because you always win, you’re a winner, and how could some pathetic asshole like me ever beat you? And if I did, you could just say I was cheating, I was sick, that I took advantage of you and of fucking course I did, because everyone is sick, everyone is trying to play someone else’s game, but not look like they care, not look like they’re trying, and god maybe they don’t care, maybe not everyone else is feeling the desperation that is slowly drilling itself through my temples all the fucking time, all the time, this feeling, and I am so done with this shit, this whole mess of trying to force myself under someone else’s skin without them noticing, and I am so done with people like you, everybody always getting too close and then backing away again and pretending like it doesn’t matter.
She steps closer to him, seems about to say something.
TYLER: Sure, I could just take my fingers and stick them in your mouth, push them into your eardrums, slide under you like a fish hook, then maybe you’d start caring that your actions have consequences, that other people exist, that I’m right fucking here and I wanted you. But it’s not even worth it. I can’t even feel anything.
WOMAN: I don’t have anywhere to be in the morning.
TYLER: Just go home. I’m leaving. I hope you enjoyed your drinks, I hope you have a nice life and no one ever hurts you.
She spends a long moment looking after him. Then takes out her phone. We hear it ringing and ringing as the lights fade.