Tuesday, March 8, 2011


It is often said that giving away one's prized possessions is a strong warning sign of a possible suicide attempt. The trinkets that we make, buy, and acquire are the most obvious outward shows of who we are and how we want to be perceived.
In my apartment, I have over one hundred framed Playbills covering my walls. Whenever I entertain a guest, their first impression, spoken or thought, is always,

"You like theatre." I can see it in their faces.
And that is precisely the image that I am trying to project - loud and clear.
"Johnny Oleksinski likes theatre."

The playwright Ed Schmidt owns two thousand theatre books, and he is giving them all away. Several times a week, in "My Last Play," Schmidt's assumedly final work, the playwright allows each audience member to choose a book to keep from one the four bookshelves in his Carroll Gardens apartment. Three decades worth of books that Schmidt feels have failed him. The run of the play will be complete once every book is gone. But why is he doing this?

Schmidt's simple answer is that he has given his entire life to the theatre, and the theatre has given him nothing in return. He has written twenty-nine plays, nine of which received professional productions, and two of which were published. All were critically panned or coolly received. "My Last Play," which he bravely performs in his actual Brooklyn apartment for twelve people at a time, is made up of deeply personal stories from Schmidt's life that act as justification for why he is leaving the theatre behind him. One such story describes the night of his father's death. Upon returning from the hospital, the playwright stowed away in his father's study hoping to find purpose and insight. Lo and behold, amidst a sea of non-fiction books, Schmidt found a lone paperback copy of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which he refers to as "The great American play."

Schmidt knew that the completion he needed was buried in the famous third act of Wilder's masterwork. But, although deeply moving, Schmidt was all too aware that he was reading a work of fiction. What was he doing reading fiction when his father's death was undeniable fact? It was that one thought that compelled this man to abandon what he has devoted his life to. Quite deep, no?

Fact and fiction. "My Last Play" is very much about fact, fiction, and the circumstances in which they can coexist. Early in the play, Mr. Schmidt tells the audience that he is very committed to telling the truth; of making his spoken word obituary entirely real. And as I was sitting quietly in his living room, I had not a single doubt about his honesty. He had, for a price, invited me into his home. He trusted me, someone he did not know, to walk through his unlocked door and treat his apartment with respect. That trust formed a bond that I have never felt before in a theatre. For the first time in my theatre-going life, I was overcome by crippling weakness, nervousness, and fear.

"He's already given fifty performances...but tonight will be the night he kills us all."

A ridiculous thought, perhaps. But I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't cross my mind. Staging a play about yourself, featuring yourself, and written by yourself in your own apartment is tremendously intrusive - and out of that simple choice was born the grandest audience manipulation I have ever witnessed.

A strange thing happened during intermission. While searching for the book that I was to inherit, I found a copy of Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," published in 2010. Schmidt claimed during the first act that he had not written, seen, or bought a play in two years. I gazed intently at the play, and then decided that it must have an oversight. Perhaps the play was given to him by a friend. Ed Schmidt had me exactly where he wanted me.

During the second half of the play, Schmidt had the audience form a semi-circle, giving the room the aura of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He picked up each book and told a story relating to it. A notable tale involved Schmidt's time as an employee at the Strand Bookstore in the East Village. When he was finished christening the books, he told us with some restraint that he had to make an admission. Schmidt then proceeded to nonchalantly tell us that several stories he told were exaggerated, happened to someone else, or were completely made up. Had a night of utter honestly been a lavish fallacy? Did a twist ending really provide for a satisfying evening? "But," Schmidt reminded us, "those books you're holding in your hands. Those are real." After that cryptic message, he delivered the last scene of the play - the final speech from "Our Town."

So, is Ed Schmidt really leaving the theatre for greener pastures? My gut tells me that he is not; that the entire evening was a brilliant, thought-proving, and emotionally stirring ruse. But the copy of Tennessee Williams' "Clothes For A Summer Hotel" glaring at me from my bookshelf begs to differ.-Johnny Oleksinski

'My Last Play' runs in Ed Schmidt's Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn apartment until he is out of plays. Visit www.mylastplay.net for more information.