Peter Van Daan
For Declan Spengler, everything that wound up happening — to himself, to all of them, to the whole crazy country if you stopped to think about it — started the day he auditioned for the role of Peter Van Daan. It wasn’t even supposed to be an audition as much as a formality — one of those annoying motions you had to go through in order to ensure that what was destined to happen would actually wind up happening.
Some things were foregone conclusions. The Cubs would not make the playoffs this year no matter how loudly Declan cheered for them; Burt Lancaster would not win an Oscar for Atlantic City no matter how much Declan thought he deserved it; Declan’s parents would never get back together no matter how much he might have wanted them to. But a foregone conclusion didn’t have to be a tragic one; after all, Declan himself, once he went on the New York theater trip with Ty Densmore, graduated from high school in June, then four years later finished Northwestern with a BA in theater — yes, Declan Spengler — would marry Carrie Hollinger, just as sure as he would be there onstage playing Peter opposite Carrie’s Anne Frank.
First, though, if he wanted all that to happen, he had to audition.
The grayish afternoon light was fading behind the nubbly stairwell windows, and the mutters and laughs of nervous auditioning actors grew louder as Declan once again climbed the cracked green linoleum steps to the Theater Annex of North Shore Magnet High School.
Located in central Evanston and bordered by low-slung factories and warehouses on one side and tidy single-family homes on another, North Shore Magnet, much like Declan himself, was in an in-between sort of place, seemingly on its way to someplace better. Not quite Evanston Township, the massive, sprawling cityscape of a high school one mile away — not quite the moneyed, cosseted enclaves of New Trier or any of the private schools along Green Bay or Sheridan Road — North Shore was equidistant from who Declan was and who he was planning to become. To the southwest was the tiny A‑frame that Declan shared with his mom in Lincolnwood, just outside Chicago. Due north was the elegant Tudor home where Carrie lived in Wilmette with her family.
For Declan, though, the Annex had always seemed to be a world apart from all that. On every other floor of North Shore at the end of the day, hallways were cramped and bustling: students gossiping by their lockers; kids in backpacks racing out the door to the bus stop or the Foster Street el, water polo players with hair wet from the showers and pool rushing past clumps of burnouts sauntering to the smoking area for one last cigarette; hotheaded boys squaring off as bloodthirsty crowds chanted “Fight! Fight! Fight!” But up here was only the solitude and safety of a bright, spacious aerie with a pair of classrooms, Ty Densmore’s office, and the theater itself.
Declan opened the Annex door. The hallway was pungent with stale smoke, perfume, and Aqua Net hairspray. His outfit was simple: white oxford, new jeans, loafers — not trying too hard, not presuming too much. Not like those freshmen and sophomores who had dressed to audition: dozens of Peter Van Daans in pressed white shirts, ties, knit pants, scuffed black shoes, and newsboy caps; dozens of Anne Franks in plain white blouses, tweed skirts, tights, and dark red lipstick. Franks and Van Daans were doing breathing exercises; Franks and Van Daans were running lines; Franks and Van Daans were practicing European accents.
Declan used to know everyone here, but today, nearly half were strangers. Some skinny, Jewish-looking kid was wearing a medium-blue bike racer’s cap with smears of bicycle grease on his yellow MINKY’S BIKE SHOP shirt and faded, saggy jeans. A leggy blonde-haired girl in a white peasant blouse was underlining passages in a book covered in green MARSHALL FIELD’S wrapping paper. Amanda Wehner, hands in the pockets of her red sateen GUARDIAN ANGELS jacket, was sitting between the legs of Rob Rubicoff, who was chuckling over a copy of Penthouse he had filched from Tyrus Densmore’s desk. Judith Nagorsky — there in her thrift shop scarves and skirts — was doing the splits as she studied her script, pausing only to give the finger to Trey Newson, who informed her that doing the splits was easy, but he bet she couldn’t spin around on a dick the way his girlfriend “Kathy Ho-HO-Ho” could, while Eileen Muldoon, who had served as stage manager and company photographer for every play and musical since she had been at North Shore but had never gotten cast in one, laughed so hard that her face turned nearly as red as the ribbed Christmas-gift sweater she was wearing. “You’re so sick,” Eileen told Trey.
All 275 pounds of Calvin Bumbry Dawes, Afro included, were here too — Calvin paced the hallway, busting jokes about how “a brother such as myself” could never be cast in this play. He slapped Declan five, then attempted an accent that he thought sounded South African and told Declan he would give such a stellar audition that Ty Densmore would have to move the play from Amsterdam to Johannesburg and rename the whole damn thing The Diary of Aisha Katanga.
“Splendid idea, mate.” Declan smiled broadly, trying to conceal his irritation with the play Mr. Densmore had chosen. The Diary of Anne Frank would be Declan’s last show at North Shore, and it was a grim play, the story of ten doomed people whose refuge turned out to be their prison. Spring plays were supposed to be comedies or musicals, and if Densmore didn’t want to direct one of those, couldn’t he at least have chosen something with showier roles instead of this somber ensemble piece about the Holocaust?
Three or four years ago, no one said a word about the Holocaust, but ever since that NBC miniseries that everyone was supposed to watch, it seemed impossible for Declan to escape it.
Three or four years ago, no one said a word about the Holocaust, but ever since that NBC miniseries that everyone was supposed to watch, it seemed impossible for Declan to escape it. Every time he picked up a magazine, some Nazi war criminal was on the cover; every time he watched the news, there was a story about John Demjanjuk, the alleged “Ivan the Terrible”; the last school assembly he’d attended was about Holocaust awareness; the only field trip he’d taken this year was to the Skokie Library to meet elderly men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms. “Never forget,” they all told him. “Never forget.” Declan knew this was an awful thing to think and he would never in a million years have said it to Carrie or her family, but he sort of thought the whole point of the Annex was that it should be a place where you could forget about things like the Holocaust.
The door to the audition room opened. The Annex’s technical director, Sammy Doulos, now in his fifth year at the high school, walked out in an EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER concert jersey, faded green DARTMOUTH sweatpants, and black shower clogs. He reeked of pot smoke. Sammy flung his hair out of his eyes, then looked down at his clipboard. “Declan Spengler,” he said.
Declan nodded gravely. “Thanks, Sam.” He could hear the sounds of the hallway fade into silence; his name carried that sort of weight here.
He adjusted the strap of his shoulder bag and strode forward, confident yet gracious and humble — the same way he would handle fame when it came to him. Just a couple of years earlier, he had waited all night down in Chicago at Lake View High School to get cast as an extra in My Bodyguard. The most instructive part of the experience hadn’t taken place when the camera was rolling; it happened in the downtime when he got to watch how professional actors behaved. Adam Baldwin had been standoffish and rude, but Matt Dillon was totally cool; he even gave Declan useful fashion tips — told him to pop the collars of his polo shirts and grow his hair longer and part it in the middle instead of on the side so he could “get more chicks.” Declan liked the idea of dispensing advice like that.
He entered the audition room, and the door shut behind him. So many memories in this room. So much sadness; so much raging glory. The first time Declan had come here, he was still reeling from the worst night of his life. The Sunday before Declan’s Our Town audition, his father had asked him to carry two suitcases down the driveway to the Mustang — only after Mr. Spengler handed over his house keys had Declan realized his dad was leaving his mom for good. But on that Monday, after Declan read for the part of George, and Ty Densmore squeezed his shoulder and told him he brought “that special vulnerable quality” Ty had been looking for, Declan understood that if he hadn’t spent the previous night crying, he wouldn’t have nailed his audition. Now he could barely remember the gangly, awkward kid he’d been before Densmore turned him into a star.
As Declan walked to the center of the room, he could imagine his entire high school career converging in this moment: the smell of foundation makeup; the harsh sensation of eyeliner pressed right under your lid; the mounted TV on which Densmore showed videos of Nicol Williamson performing Shakespeare; the window where they watched every other student and teacher leave while they stayed past midnight to get a scene right; the way Densmore would break you down, then build you back up again and tell you exactly what he was doing: “I am breaking you down, Dec, but I will build you back up.”
Densmore was sitting behind his desk in his usual black turtleneck and a gray scarf, tall black boots hiked up on the desk. His bald pate gleamed in the glow of the overhead fluorescents. He had a notepad in his lap and he was sucking on the end of a ballpoint pen.
Declan put his bag down on a chair and took his place in front of the desk.
“A bittersweet moment,” Densmore said. “Your last audition for me. And the last role you’ll play here. Now, tell me which you’d choose.”
“I’ll be playing Peter,” said Declan.
“Peter Van Daan.”
Mr. Densmore’s face seemed to droop. He stroked his goatee with his pen. “Peter? Really?” he asked. “Think for a moment; think very carefully. Peter isn’t that much of a role, Dec. He won’t showcase your ability to command a stage. He’s just such a bland boy: he stutters when Anne flirts with him; he blushes around her. Let’s be honest, when it comes down to it, Peter is just an irritating, stuttering, nattering little pussy.”
“Not the way I’ll play him,” Declan said. “And when I’m at Northwestern, I won’t get to play lead roles right away; I’ll have to get used to being part of an ensemble. Peter will be good practice.”
What Declan didn’t mention was that he felt certain Densmore would cast Carrie as Anne Frank, and he couldn’t stand the idea of any other actor playing her boyfriend. The idea haunted him so much — Trey Newson dancing with Carrie; Rob Rubicoff stealing a kiss from her; Calvin Dawes smothering her — that he had to take the role himself.
“Well, let’s see this ‘Peter’ of yours,” Densmore said.
Declan turned his back, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then spun around and gave Sammy a tight little nod. He was ready.
Densmore read a short introduction to the scene: “The stage is dark. A cyclorama of Amsterdam at night fades into view. Peter is with Anne in his room. And lights up!”
Sammy began the dialogue, reading Anne’s lines flatly: “I wanna be a journalist or somethin’. I love to write. What do you wanna do?”
Declan peered meekly through imaginary glasses and spoke in a halting middle European accent — not a thick one, just a lilt as he felt himself becoming Peter. “I thought I might go off somepless,” he said, “verk on a farm or somesing … some job zhat doesn’t tekk much brenns.”
Densmore kept his face blank, giving away nothing. He never did. And as Declan kept reading, he secretly thanked Densmore for that lack of consideration, for it made him try harder. He could feel Peter’s loneliness, his fear of getting too close to Anne, of dying in the war, of becoming a man. His tears flowed as Sammy read Anne’s line: “Everyone has friends.”
“Not me. I don’t vant enny.” Declan wiped his eyes. “I get along all right vissout zhem.”
Boom — right on the money. Now Declan’s only fear was that he would have no idea how, over the course of the rehearsal process, to delve further into this character. But somehow he would find new depths. It was like when he used to spend his weekend afternoons avoiding his parents’ fights by playing Asteroids at the Novelty Golf Arcade: just when he thought he couldn’t go any further, he’d unlock another realm, just as now, when he read the final line in his scene, he discovered a meaning he hadn’t registered before.
“Nine o’clock,” Sammy read. “I hafta go. G’night.”
“You won’t let zhem stop you from comink?” Declan asked.
Over the dozens of times he had read this line, to himself or when he had Carrie practice it with him, “You won’t let them stop you from coming?” had seemed like a simple question: Would Anne come to see him even if her parents told her she couldn’t? But there was so much more to it. The question was not just about whether Mr. and Mrs. Frank would allow their daughter to spend time with him; it was about the Nazis outside. Could they be stopped? It was about the world forces that would intervene in their just-blossoming love affair: Could they be stopped? It was about the indefatigability of love and the human spirit.
Declan could feel Carrie near him — could feel himself asking her to assure him that, no, she wouldn’t let anyone stop her from coming. Not the Nazis and not Carrie’s parents, who always eyed Declan with weary, condescending skepticism, as if their daughter’s love for him was something she’d outgrow.
Declan said the final line one more time to give it its full meaning and emphasis. His breaths halted; his voice quavered. “You won’t let them stop you from coming?”
He dropped his hands to his sides. He took a breath, closed his eyes, then opened them again. Densmore was staring right at him; a smile formed on one side of the man’s mouth.
“Well,” Densmore said, “I won’t let them stop you from cumming; the question is whether Carrie will.”
Sammy erupted in rude laughter — “Eeh eeh, eeh” — then mimed masturbating and made sound effects: “Pfft, pfft, pfft.”
Densmore winked, then reached across his desk and swatted Declan’s ass with his clipboard. “Nice job as per usual, Dec,” he said. Declan picked up his bag, lifted the strap over his shoulder, and headed out of the room as Sammy shuffled out to call in the next actor: “Franklin Light.” The skinny kid with the bicycle grease on his shirt and jeans walked past Declan and into the audition room.
Adam Langer is a journalist, an editor, and the author of a memoir and five novels including the internationally best-selling novel Crossing California. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he currently serves as culture editor at The Forward.