Before My Last Play, I’d never imagined Prospero drowning his books carefully, lovingly, one by one, like children. I suppose I visualized more of a cheesy Frank Frazetta tableau: some Mosaic wizard pitching boulder-size tomes into the violent surf. Playwright Ed Schmidt doesn’t have a violent surf at his disposal (although the Gowanus Canal is within walking distance). He isn’t exactly wizardly: Sandy-haired and small of frame, he’s a picture of ordinariness. Nor is he particularly ancient — just 48. But that’s too old, he tells us, to be hoodwinked by theater, the art form to which he’s devoted his life, and which has given him “too little” in return.
This, he says, is why he’s leaving the stage for good, and giving away each of his 2,000 theater books, one to each audience member who attends My Last Play. (Nearly 200 are already gone.) Schmidt then proceeds to hoodwink us with theater, affirming its power even as he abjures its charms. But he sticks to his guns: Those books leave the house with the audience, a blessing (and maybe just a touch of a curse) upon them. Said my date afterwards: “I feel like I just took part in an assisted suicide.”
It’s been seven years since I shared The Last Supper with Schmidt. For the millions who missed that show — Schmidt’s kitchen only sat fifteen at a time — Supper was a one-man, one-room, order-in miracle show, performed in his Windsor Terrace breakfast nook. He promised dinner and a play about “The Last Supper (original Christ edition),” but for most of the show, neither materialized. Instead, complications ensued: seemingly unrelated phone calls, various small disasters, personal explorations that recalled Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, and Ross McElwee, and, for some audiences, the spontaneous appearances of Schmidt’s children. Toward the end, it became clear we’d been hoodwinked, elegantly and humanely and several times over, by a master magician with a home-turf advantage. But Schmidt wasn’t fibbing about one thing: He really had written a play about faith and fellowship.
My Last Play is, in many ways, the converse of the Schmidtian Moebius. It’s a play that is, ostensibly at least, about the death of faith, about divestiture and loss. He says he’s separated now, and we have no reason to disbelieve him. He’s in a different Brooklyn apartment, one that feels a few distinct degrees colder than his toasty Terrace burrow. Decor is bachelor-minimal — mostly shelves, old books, a bicycle, little else visible — and there are long shadows sagging beyond the lit parlor front room where Schmidt performs for an audience of ten. Theater has failed him in his hour of greatest need, he explains in a selective and (it becomes increasingly clear) utterly untrustworthy history — now, at 48, he’s finally leaving it behind. His stories are elliptical and a few of them don’t quite add up; a phantom strain of poetic logic surfaces every now and then, reminding you just how shifty Schmidt is — this is a play, not a testimonial, and even its “lastness” is a bit of a dodge. When the books are gone, so will be Schmidt’s career on the stage — or so he says. (“But surely you’ll do more!” cried one distressed patron.)
And the end of the first act, we are asked to choose our books, and the second act is about the books themselves: We hand our picks to Schmidt, somewhat abashedly. Of all the boundaries he dissolves and social taboos he breaks — the unilateral rezoning of personal space as public amphitheater, the unctuous over-sharing — perhaps the most transgressive is Schmidt’s violation of the sacred New York bookshelf. Our bookshelves, ourselves — these are our coats of arms, our semi-public source codes, and naturally, we’ve all coveted the contents of other people’s libraries. In a kind of cannibal-communion, Schmidt invites us to dine on his — and on him. And he makes us feel it: For each book given away, he tells a story, a memory about or inspired by this particular play or volume. Here, we see the mechanics of improv showing through the scrim a bit, but it’s Schmidt’s peculiar gift to make even his most obvious inventions feel like sincere parts of his personal mythology.
Reflecting on the night, you’ll no doubt recall a number of inconsistencies in Schmidt’s account, details that sound a tad too convenient or a shade melodramatic. Even Schmidt finds his own intentions a little suspect, as he’ll readily admit. He heads upstairs after the finale, then reappears to press the flesh. “If I were a braver performer, I’d vanish up those stairs and you’d never see me again,” he told me afterwards. (Or, I should say, “afterwards.”) “But I guess I just want to be loved a little too much.” Schmidt doesn’t require any consistency of himself. He says he’s here to euthanize a lifelong dream; yet in doing so, he takes stolid, static volumes off the shelf and makes them burn with the immediacy of living performance. He consecrates what he destroys. Is this really an assisted suicide? Or a rebirth? Or are we all just bit players in someone else’s midlife crisis? Most important: Do I get to keep my free book? The answer to that last one: Yes. But the other questions haunt us, long after Schmidt has dispatched his anti-Magi, books in hand, into the cold night.
My Last Play is running at Ed Schmidt’s apartment in Carroll Gardens until Ed Schmidt’s theater books are all gone. Tickets can be obtained by going here.
Follow Scott Brown on Facebook and Twitter: @scottstagedive.