The Barkeep Who Made it to Broadway
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Literally the next day, he saw a notice in the local paper for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to be performed at the Fairfield Community Theatre Company. He auditioned for three or four parts. “I figured out the rhythms,” he says, “and I think my writing helped because I used to write with a lot of rhythm—that was my style; I tried to build an ebb and a flow—and I found that when I started to read drama I could find those rhythms really easily, where other people would struggle.”
Over the course of the next few years, while tending bar part-time, Boland got parts in eight or nine more community theater productions before answering an open call, in 1997, at the Long Wharf Theatre and winning a role in She Stoops To Conquer. It was the first show under new artistic director Doug Hughes, who would go on to win a Tony in 2005 for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and with whom Boland would do four more plays.
Then, with his drinking escalating, he stopped auditioning altogether for two years until Long Wharf called to offer him multiple roles in a local touring show of David Mamet’s Race. “They actually called me at the bar because it was the only number they had for me,” Boland says. “I don’t remember a lot of that show. I felt I was in a panic all the time because I had an unreliable car; I was an unreliable person.”
He made it to the end of the run. But once the show was through, so was he. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t put myself through that again.’ Which didn’t mean I was going to cut back on my drinking—I was going to cut back on my acting. And it was the exact same thing I’d done with the writing. I knew that doom was around the corner and I wanted to get out of Dodge before that happened.”
Five years would pass before he made it back to the stage.
“I’m not sure what happened,” he says of that period. “The whole tape kind of got blurry.” Although he did a little house painting with his brother, mostly he drank—and at fever pitch, he says. “I sort of felt released from the bondage of life for a little while.”
His new stage was Al’s Place, one of the last old-man saloons in Fairfield, where he found full-time work behind the bar. “It became my whole world,” he recalls. “I used to go in hours before my shift and just sit there and watch TV and read the papers and get really informed about the world so I had stuff to bullshit about. One day bled into another.”
Gradually, bar life took its toll. Due to a subsistence diet of alcohol and bags of Doritos from behind the bar, his weight dropped from 245 to below 160. He started losing his balance, his vision blurred and he couldn’t keep down solid food. Old friends understood what was happening to him, but he didn’t want to hear it. One of them was childhood pal Bruce Benway. “You know when you lose weight and the more you tighten your belt, the longer the strap gets? The end of his belt started to look like a lasso. I’d say, ‘Dude, I’m worried about you,’ and he’d say, ‘Just worry about yourself.’”
Boland finally hit bottom on Easter Sunday 2002, after he was fired from the bar. (“To get fired from Al’s Place?” Benway quips, “That’s saying a lot!”) Over Sunday dinner, his father, who had had cancer, and his older brother, George, intervened. “After we ate, my dad told me that he wasn’t sure how long he had to live and that the only thing he really wanted before he died was to see me get sober. It was heavy. Even when we didn’t have any kind of a relationship, I’ve always loved my dad. I tried to fight it off, I tried to rationalize my way out of it, but I had no ammunition. And for some reason at that moment I realized that I was fighting a ghost and I was losing.”
He agreed to go back to rehab—he had put in time there in 1996 and again in 1998—but not before giving drinking one more chance. Boland spent a final day at the bar from which he’d been fired. As he recalls, “I drank with the old men in the morning—I’m walking around saying, ‘I’m going to rehab tomorrow,’ and they’re all saying, ‘It doesn’t work!’ and ‘Shut the hell up!’—and then all through the afternoon with the working stiffs as they came in, and in the evening with the college kids. It was unbelievable—I not only couldn’t get drunk, but I also realized I didn’t fit in with any of them anymore.”