A Company of Three
“O’Connor’s portrait of struggling actors in seventies New York is a fine, vivid novel that rings with authenticity and brims with life.”
--Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God and The Last of Her Kind
“ ...Entering her gritty Hell’s Kitchen of the hand-to-mouth actor is like watching a documentary of a bygone New York.”
Publishers Weekly, 2003
In her appealing second novel, actress O’Connor (Like China) spotlights the lives of three aspiring actors in New York City in the late 1970s. Narrator Robert, who hails from New Jersey, is handsome and determined; New England trust-funder Patrick is darkly dramatic; and beautiful 21-year-old Irene, fresh off the bus from Kansas, will do anything to become a star. They quickly form an inseparable trio--Patrick and Robert, already friends, swoop in on newbie Irene after acting class and take her out for cheesecake--consoling each other over tough auditions, rejection and heartbreak, and celebrating their all-consuming love for acting. As the years pass, Robert falls in love with Irene, “the hub of the wheel of our threesome”; Patrick descends into depression and seeks out abusive lovers; and Irene decides to sleep her way to acting success. Just as Robert and Irene finally admit their love for one another, Patrick’s troubled past comes back to haunt him. In the midst of everything, Robert accepts a part in a soap opera: “I had succeeded not because I was a finer actor than Irene and Patrick,” he reflects, “nor because I was smarter or stronger, but because I refused to give up. I managed to accept the rules.” Robert’s fame and glory shift the balance; when he moves to Los Angeles, he leaves his best friend and great love behind. But when Patrick’s despair grows too deep and Irene realizes how much she misses Robert, the three friends must decide how far they’ll go to save themselves and the family that they have formed. O’Connor’s clean, affecting prose and her book’s moving conclusion will stay with readers long after the curtain drops.
Set in the 1970s, O’Connor’s novel chronicles the trials of three young hopefuls trying to make it as theater actors in New York. Robert and Patrick meet Irene in acting class, and the three soon become inseparable. Robert falls hard for Irene, but she’s taken up with an aging soap opera actor. Patrick maintains an aloof attitude when it comes to his love affairs, though Robert and Irene have heard whispers about Benton, a shady lover from his past. As with any close group, the dynamics are complex and often tense. Robert becomes frustrated with Patrick’s dramatic reaction to any setback, and with Irene’s ambition, which leads her into an affair with an arrogant director. It is Robert’s star that ascends first, after he wins a part in a soap opera and attracts Hollywood’s attention. O’Connor has created a fascinating set of characters, who rely on and push each other away in equal measure, and their struggles are sure to engage readers, especially those interested in the cutthroat world of acting.
An essay about connections between acting and writing, originally published in the spring 2003 Algonkian Magazine:
"Upstaging Divine" by Varley O’Connor
In the late ‘70s, fresh out of drama school, I would sit on a stool by the window in the Times Square Howard Johnson’s, circling auditions in Back Stage, the weekly trade paper, dazed and excited by the new sight of crowds rushing by and feeling an endless sense of possibility.
Every day I made rounds for six or eight hours, pounding the pavement in tall platform shoes. Some nights I had to soak my poor feet, but as I did I was usually reading a play, or practicing a monologue, still planning at every waking moment my conquest of New York.
My first big theater part came fairly soon. I got an understudy job in a hit, an off-Broadway show called Women Behind Bars. It was a send-up of jailhouse dramas, and I would stand in for one of the leads, the innocent who gets wrecked and hardened by her time in the clink.
Typecasting. Though I liked to consider myself sophisticated, I had grown up in suburban New Jersey and Detroit. Boston, where I went to college, was a gentle town compared to New York. And I had the round, pretty face of an ingenue, there was no getting past that. Oh well, I thought, at least at the end of the play I would get to be tough.
Three weeks later I had to go on stage. I’d never rehearsed with the show’s stars, with Holly Woodlawn, one of Andy Warhol’s underground divas, or with Divine, a female impersonator who became famous to a wider audience in the films of John Waters.
I will never forget the first scene. Divine, as the matron, dressed up in a sort of nurse’s outfit and a huge blond wig, hauled me onstage into the cell block. All around us, circling like hawks, were the other inmates, mostly big, strong actresses, larger than life, their heavily made-up faces and leering eyes glowing in the hot white lights. Beyond them I could sense the coiled silence of the audience, breathing like a hungry animal. My fear was real. Everything I did in the play that night was real.
Divine and I had a number of scenes together. In one we had to share a spotlight at the edge of the stage. I thought it went well. It was only later, offstage, when somebody told me that I learned I had inadvertently hogged the light, squeezing the well-nigh three-hundred pound star into the shadows.
I didn’t have time then to worry. I rushed on and off stage, getting laughs and hitting all of my lines, gaining confidence as the action surged on. By the end I was having a blast. Released on parole, I got to light up a cigarette before my last line: “Bye, girls,” I said, “see you next week.” I got to leave up the center aisle straight through the cheering audience.
At the back the director, Ron Link—the handsomest, most sophisticated, and scariest man I had ever met—was grinning like a kid. He opened his arms and hugged me hard. I rejoined the cast for the bows, and it was over.
Then I remembered what I had done to Divine. I stood on the empty stage in back of the closed curtain. What would I say to him—her? What would I even call her?
It was cramped and crowded backstage. We didn’t even have our own dressing rooms. I saw Divine in her spot at the mirror, dressed now in a caftan, her wig placed on a stand beside her. Taped to her mirror was a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor, and I realized that Divine did her makeup just like Elizabeth’s. She rubbed off one arched black eyebrow, watching me in the mirror.
“I’m sure, dear,” she finally said, in a no-nonsense tone, “that that will never happen again.”
Years later, when I learned that I wanted to write as well as act, I found that writing and acting were very similar. Both were about putting myself on the line. For me, both involve fear and risk, and the rush I feel as I write a good page is as great as any I’ve felt on a stage. I never believe I’ll be able to do it, and yet I do.
When I write, inside my mind there is a stage, where the lights are as hot and the colors as bright. The outer world dims, goes away, and time seems to stop. The main difference between acting and writing is that when I write I create the whole stage, and play all the parts. All at once I am writing, directing, and acting the play. I don’t have to worry then about hogging the light.