As a graduate student at Columbia University, I recall one particularly challenging playwriting assignment from mentor, and teacher, Dr. Howard Stein: “Rent a Revenge.”

“Rent a Revenge” was one of the last, and most challenging, things for us to write because Howard would only give us the title of the assignment.  You had to figure out the rest on your own.  Many students would get stuck and whine and complain, but Howard would not budge with additional direction.  Ask him any question about the assignment, and all he would do is yell back at you, “Rent a Revenge.”

As I remember it, my scene turned out okay.  It had something to do with a guy working at hotdog stand who would murder the person of your choice for the price of a hotdog.  The “rent” part came in that you could not eat the hotdog until the job was done and then you had to return the hotdog or he’d kill you.  He kept re-using the same hotdog to keep his prices low.

Anyway, the most infamous “Rent a Revenge” ever written occurred the year before I attended Columbia, and it still lives in infamy and wonder to this day among all of Howard Stein’s students.  I confess I am in awe of the idea and the execution of that particular scene.  Howard would refer to that Rent a Revenge every year — after we’d all performed our current crop of awful scenes — as to what an outstanding revenge looked like on stage.

The student who wrote the classic scene was formerly an advertising guy, so he had a keen ear and an eye for human dramatic tension.  The student remembered a story Howard would often tell us all about another rogue student he had to remove from his study of program in Iowa years ago, and who promised to one day return and kill Howard where he stood.

That threatening student was odd, and scary, and had a memorable name — something like “Gig Crazyass” — and we all remembered the story, and that name, because it was sort of like a never ending ghost story we never tired of hearing repeated to us early often.

The day of the classic Rent a Revenge performance had Howard acting out one role — he always did that — and he’d pick other students to join him on stage to act out the scene.  In the middle of some odd, innocuous dialogue, a rouge stranger appeared at the back of the theatre and started to slowly descend the stairs toward Howard.  The initial dialogue played out something like this:

STRANGER:  Are you Howard Stein?

(STRANGER takes three steps down the aisle to Howard.)

HOWARD:  Why, yes, I am Howard Stein.  How may I help you?

(STRANGER takes more steps toward Howard.)

STRANGER:  You don’t remember me, do you?

(More steps…)

HOWARD:  No, I don’t know you.  But you do look familiar.

(Holding out arms… to strangle or greet?)

STRANGER:  My name is Gig Crazyass.  I used to be a student of yours at Iowa.  I’m here to keep my promise!

SCREAMS from the other students in the audience as they remembered the name of the scary nut from Howard’s previous storytelling…

Hearing Howard re-tell that story was absolutely thrilling.  He was in on the gag and had approved, and even rehearsed the scene, before the class session.  The only people who knew what was really happening were Howard, the student playwright, and the actor playing Gig.  Everyone else in the classroom had no idea what was really happening — they thought they were watching “Rent a Revenge” on stage, when it was actually playing out around them in real time.  Genius, that!

Now, the reason Howard loved that Rent a Revenge scene had nothing to do with the actual scene.  He instead was wowed by the reaction of the students in his class who had no idea what was happening was not real, but rather, a written scene.

As the STRANGER descended the aisle, two male students, who had no idea this guy was really an actor, but who recognized the crazy name and who remembered his threat to kill Howard, quietly rose from their seats and placed themselves in the aisle between the STRANGER and Howard.  They didn’t say anything or touch the guy, but they were going to start throwing punches if the STRANGER took one more step toward Howard.

Then, there were three other students, all female, who — remembering the name “Gig Crazyass” and the promise to kill — freaked out and ran screaming out of the theatre the opposite direction and they all hid together in the women’s bathroom.

Other students were frozen in fear and did not move from their seats.

In the subsequent retelling of the story, Howard admired the two students who leapt to his defense, not knowing it was all a scene, and Howard forgave those who froze and did not move but, until his dying day, he hated the three women who fled the theatre.

Now, Howard did not hate them for running to hide in the bathroom — that is a perfectly acceptable and understandable human emotion and reaction in the situation — what he could never forgive or forget was that, two days later, the three students changed their story from, “we ran to hide in the bathroom” to, “we ran to call the police.”

Everyone who was in that room knew they were lying, but they were not brave enough, or strong enough, to admit that they ran to hide, not to make a phone call.

Even when Howard tried to privately counsel them back to the truth of what they did, they all stuck to their police lie — and so the gall of them trying to re-cast, and re-write, and re-wire what impeccably happened that day by written design, created such a human fury in Howard Stein that he could barely abide speaking the names of the students in public in retelling the story.

For Howard — you could be human and scared and frail and broken and still be admired — but to intentionally lie and then try to forge a new reality against what was already shared was absolutely immoral and unforgivable, and a like like that cuts only one way and leads only to the grave.

13 Comments

  1. What a roller coaster of emotions this has wrought! I was excited to read Howard’s story and felt sad that those cowards ran and lied about it — and mighty impressed by his protectors! Do you have a copy of your hot dog saga?

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    1. Howard retelling his favorite Rent a Revenge is my favorite grad school moment. It was so delicious every step of the way — and then the end hits — and the runaway refusal to confess they were human… just makes it all so historically juicy! Howard also told everyone the names of the three lying cowards every chance he got — he wanted us to know them and never forget what they did in changing their story.

      I have copies of everything I’ve ever written. Unfortunately that scene is on paper somewhere. Those were the days before I had ready access to a computer and printer.

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  2. This is one of my favorite Howard stories of all time. Watching Howard set the scene was a whole show in itself. He was a great teacher and an excellent actor to play all those roles when he told the story.

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    1. Yes, it was magnificent watching Howard weave that story. I always felt the heroes were the two students who stood up to protect Howard in the aisle, but he wasn’t particularly interested in them. I guess he expected that because of their high character, so they weren’t so relevant in the retelling — but his three betrayers… oh my! He’d go on for 90 minutes about their lie and how it changed them, and him, forever!

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  3. Many things have changed since I’ve been out. New design looks wonderful. Howard Stein always tells a great story and makes a great story.

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