ANOTHER TIME AT THE PLAYHOUSE
It’s best in such a case to just keep going. Ignore any inadvertent sexual slip. Although my wife thought she’d made a Hall of Fame Goof, few in the audience noticed her error. Even fewer knew why she was suddenly blushing. When she came off stage, she gasped, “My mother is in the first row!”
Sometimes, going on is impossible. A misstatement can bring the play to a screeching halt. In a famous example, a con man was supposed to burst into a hotel room and tell his fellow conspirators that there was a hotel detective – a “house dick” – outside. For reasons known only to himself, he strode to center stage and proclaimed, “There’s a horse dick in the hall!”
The mental picture caused the entire cast on stage to break up.
Another famous stage story concerns an actress failing to enter on cue. The single actor on stage repeated the cue several times while offstage the stage manager scrambled to find the missing actress. When she was at last pushed on stage, the relieved actor greeted her with his proper line – “Where have you been?”
The tardy one blurted the truth: “I was in the green room having a cigarette.”
Something similar once happened to me. I forget the name of the play. I had a small part as a building contractor who, at the opening to Act Two, was supposed to be at center stage talking to the lady of the house. The actress was named Jane Smith and her character was named Mrs. Jones. There was no curtain, so I made my way to my place in the dark. When the lights came up, I was alone. No Jane Smith!
For once, I kept my brains about me. I had some blueprints in hand. After a few minutes, I went to the door and called, “Excuse me, Mrs. Jones. Can I see you for a minute?” Normally, I would have bad-libbed and called out to Mrs. Smith.
When the actress arrived, we completed a short scene and I left the stage. An apprentice was standing there with eyes like saucers. As I passed him, I whispered, “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.” Actually, I only made a few dollars more each week than the apprentice. The point was that for once I had successfully ad libbed.
Bad-libbing isn’t hereditary. My son was only ten when he went on stage for the first time. In a second act scene, he and another actor were on stage when the telephone rang by accident. A popular acting anecdote is about just this situation. The phone rings; both actors freeze, panicked over what to do. Finally one actor reaches for the telephone. The second actor relaxes until the first actor answers, then hands him the phone. “It’s for you.”
My son had no doubt heard that story many times. When it happened to him, he answered and told the caller it was a wrong number. A couple in the audience who had seen the play and knew what had happened applauded. The only thing really interesting about the event, aside from a quick-thinking ten-year-old, was that the technician in the light booth who inadvertently rang the phone was my son’s mother, my wife.
Despite my bad review for my first appearance at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, I was thrilled to be find a role in another production, Wait Until Dark. This time the casting was letter-perfect – a not-too-bright thug out for no good. I was the third creep in a trio who terrorized a blind lady for three acts. I couldn’t have asked for better type-casting. I thought, “Let’s see the reviews this time!”
I did have one small bad lib. Because the lady was blind, we thugs did all sorts of things to search her home without her realizing what was happening. At one point, I was to mount a three-step stool so that I could reach something. As I balanced on top, the stool began to slowly bend. I rode it like a tiny elevator down to the floor and then stepped off. Across the room, the lady was supposedly blind. She reacted cleverly by alluding to the odd sound. “What was that?” she asked.
My answer was, “I bent your thing.” For some reason the audience laughed.
Although my answer broke the tension on stage for a few moments, the production was fine over all. I couldn’t wait for the newspaper reviewer to write about my performance this time. In my first Playhouse production, all she had said was I “appeared nervous.” That was true, but I thought she might have found some positives. No matter, my thug in Wait Until Dark would win her over.
The next day, I ripped open the newspaper to her review. After spreading praise on the director and leads, she got to me in the fifth paragraph. All she wrote was that I “appeared less nervous than in his previous Playhouse appearance.”
And that was it. She’d got me twice for the same play! My ad-libbed review of her review was not fit to print.