FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY
By: Richard Jeter
Act two, costume change. Somber attire, funerary in nature.
Randall had brought the best suit he owned for the fitting, in so much as it was the only suit he owned. An ill-matched ensemble from a mall wholesale outlet, the play's author would be pleased to know it was, in fact, what he'd worn to his parents' funeral eight months prior.
The costume designer clucked her tongue at it immediately.
"Did you bring any other options?"
"I...don't really have--"
She snapped her fingers, and an assistant whisked him away before his ready-to-wear blazer could further offend her senses. In a cyclone of apologies and deftly whirling tape measure, the assistant scribbled a cryptic series of numbers that would, he assumed, become the nicest suit he'd never owned.
"It's the audience," she'd explained from the vicinity of his inseam. "It'll be the one percent of the one percent. Everything has to be perfect. Mr. Chernov won't allow otherwise."
Now, in the unforgiving glare of his dressing table lights, he admitted it was just that. He could have blended seamlessly with the producers, directors, and billionaires all-sorts he'd glimpsed during the first act. The tech magnate had packed the house with nothing short of a Forbes list.
Intermission felt interminably long, sequestered in the communal dressing room. He pretended to review the script, an empty gesture given his eidetic memory. In reality, he used his mirror to covertly observe his eleven grimly clad castmates in this, the strangest and most serendipitous of roles.
All but two had ended up clothed by their eccentric benefactor. The odd pair out came from enough money that their own attire survived the fitting; they naturally gravitated to a corner away from the peasantry.
Stalking social media after the first table read had revealed they were all artists, most of them the starving variety. Somewhere between the need to feed their egos, or feed themselves, lie their motivations for being here. Beyond that, he had found no common thread, no distinct method to the casting madness.
"One night only," the talent coordinator on the phone declared, curt British accent making everything sound more official. "An exclusive dinner soiree performance hosted by Mr.
Chernov at his villa, before some of the most influential people in Hollywood.
"You were selected by our scouts for your exemplary work in similar local productions. For the short notice, and required commitment, you will be compensated $100,000."
In the face of such an offer, he'd done what he figured any sane person would.
He hung up on an obvious scam.
They showed up at his house the following night. A British woman and two imposing, tuxedoed "assistants."
"I understand your hesitation, Mr. Banes. I assure you, this offer is legitimate. And Mr. Chernov hates rejection nearly as much as he loves theater."
A bell rang over the mansion's intercom system, notifying patrons that the play would resume momentarily. In the dressing room, the cast warily eyed the door, like zoo animals anticipating a feeding.
"My condolences to the deceased," quipped Steve, to a smattering of polite laughter.
The twist to this kitschy little program was that the audience, by voting during intermission, chose which character to shuffle off at the end. The final victim of the dinner party's mysterious, murderous host.
Randall quietly hoped it was Steve, and his inability to deliver punchlines without glancing at the audience for approval.
The door flung open, admitting the harried stage manager, balancing a repurposed communion tray containing 12 shot glasses of various liquids, labeled by character name.
"Alright, you know the drill. Bottoms up."
They'd learned during rehearsal that Chernov's obsession with authenticity was boundless. Act 2 required their characters to be slightly inebriated. On the first day, they were asked to make a choice; what would their alter ego drink? On the second, and every rehearsal after, their selections appeared, to be consumed between acts. No exceptions.
"Who'd they off?" Steve asked, as the rest of the cast completed their intoxicating sacrament.
The bell rang again.
"That's places, let's go everyone."
Confusion rippled through the room. Jasmine, whose black dress was her own, sighed at the help's incompetence.
"Um, we have to know who's getting the death scene?"
"The victim will be cued. Mr. Chernov wants genuine surprise. For all our sakes, let's not keep him waiting."
In the chorus of protestations that deluged the increasingly desperate stage manager, Randall was struck by how insufferable and needy this lot were. It was no wonder they were all--
He glanced from face to face, photographic memory attaching social media portfolios.
Single. Divorced. Single. Widower. His own parents, gone.
Suspicion, cold as a graveside service, crept in. Turning his empty shot glass over and again, he wondered if he'd even be able to tell...
"Remember, you've signed an agreement, thank you," the stage manager chided as the cast filed by, cowed in to taking the stage without knowing the victim's identity. "The show must--"
"--Go On Clause?"
The British woman did not have to lean forward to see where his pen was resting, beneath the non-disclosure agreements.
"Yes. If you do not complete the play as agreed, in its entirety, or violate the NDA, you forfeit your payment, and Mr. Chernov will pursue his strongest recourse against you for breach of contract."
Randall winced at the thought.
"Yeah, with more money than God, I'm sure he's got enough lawyers to absolutely bury a person."
Her stoic, ageless face betrayed nothing.
"I'm certain he does."
Randall took his mark on the darkened stage. If anyone else had started connecting the dots, he couldn't see their faces now to tell. They would soon discover, audience and cast alike, who the mysterious host had poisoned.
Chernov truly had spared no expense for authenticity.
The lights came up. The curtain raised. Ignoring a burning sensation in his stomach he hoped was the Scotch, Randall hit his cue.
And the show went on.