photo: Craig Schwartz
It was the second day of rehearsal for Lawnchair and we'd done a little bit of work. I felt ok. During a break in rehearsal, Hal Prince came up to me and there was nobody else around. He put his arm around me and I immediately thought, “I’m fired. It’s pink slip for Donna Lynne.” He said, “Listen kid ... ” and already I was starting to well up. He said, (imitating Hal Prince) “So, listen - I’m working on this play. It’s called Hollywood Arms. It’s written by Carol Burnett. It’s based on her life. We need somebody to play her in her twenties and I think you’d be perfect for it. I called Carol last night. I told her about you. I hope you don’t mind. It won’t be till next year though. Are you interested in something like that?” I stood there dumbfounded, trying to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t being fired, and said “Am I hallucinating or did you just ask me to play Carol Burnett?” He said, “Yeah. Is that all right?” I said, “Um ... yeah... that’s all right.” (laughing) I wish I had been more effusive at the moment but I was so stunned.
Then, he didn’t mention it for another seven months, so I thought, “Ok, for the rest of my life, I can still live off the fact that at one moment in time, Hal Prince wanted me to play Carol Burnett.” That was totally fine with me. I was sure he’d found somebody else and that was fine. I had that one moment.
We did 3hree again in Los Angeles six months later. The night before we opened Hal came up to me at seven o’clock. After not mentioning it all this time, he said, “Ok, Carol’s here. All the producers from the Goodman are here and so is her husband. They’re going to see the show. I’ll bring them back after the show to meet you. That’s ok, right?” All I said was, “Oh my God! How long have you known? I couldn’t have worn a decent outfit? What are you doing to me?” He said, “It’s part of your charm, kid, don’t worry about it. You’ll be swell. Just don’t screw it up.”
Of course it was the worst audience we’d ever had and everything went wrong, because it always does when someone like Carol Burnett’s in the house - that’s just a given. Through the entire show I was thinking, “What witty and intelligent things can I say to Carol Burnett?” I was about to meet one of my biggest idols, so I knew I’d better come up with something interesting to say. After the show she came back to my dressing room and all that came out of my mouth was vowels – no consonants, just vowels. It was just so shocking to see her in person that I didn’t know what to say. I felt so bad.
They were all standing there, so I looked at Hal and said, “Dude, help me out.” He again said, “It’s part of your charm, kid. Don’t worry about it,” and to Carol, “Wasn’t she swell?” Carol said, “Oh yes, very nice.” Then I blurted out, “My mother loves you” which is such a weird random thing to say. She looked at me and said, “Well ... you tell your mother I love her too.” I was thinking (sarcastically), “Gee, this is going so well.” Somebody came in and saved me fortunately and that was it. All I could think was, “If I had any chance of getting the part, I’ve certainly done myself in now and I have no one to blame but myself.”
He never mentioned it again of course. 3hree closed, I went to London to do some recording. I came back and did the whole By Jeeves saga ...
NR: And got to work with Alan Ayckbourn. What was that like?
With John Scherer
in By Jeeves
photo: Diane Sobolewski
He taught me one of the greatest rules to successful comedy - the more serious it is for the character, the funnier it is. He used to say to me, "My dear, the text is funny. The story is funny. You do not have to make anything funny at all. I have done all the work for you. Trust me, have faith in the text, and for God's sake, take it seriously and get on with it!"
Another great thing about Alan is that he's been an actor himself, so he understands us and our natures. About three weeks into any run he would send us a fax and say simply, "Whatever you are doing now that you weren't doing when I was last there, please stop doing it immediately!" (laughs) He knows it's human nature to stretch scenes out of shape because we're getting new laughs here and there, but he wanted the laughs that he put in the scene and nothing more. He never wanted us to forsake the main "structure laugh" in a scene for a bunch of little actor ego-based laughs working up to it.