My roommate Ruth was searching high,low and under the bed for someone to take a part in a one-act play for Mask Club. Every year, as a Theater major, she was required to direct one play for the Club. With her leading lady still not tapped, her face got longer and sadder each day until we might just as well have been keeping a bloodhound. I had said a definite, non-negotiable "NO" early on, but Ruth's outsized dark eyes kept following me around the apartment nonetheless. She had run out of enticements and supplications days ago; now she relied on straight pathos and implied guilt. Under that treatment, I surrendered.
The play, as I remember, was Priestley's "Mother's Day." The comedy, set in England in the early 20th century, centered on three characters, a pompous bully of a husband, his brow-beaten, submissive wife, and a tough, no-nonsense neighbor woman. I played the wife. Now, wait! Don't cry "Mis-casting!" quite yet.
"Mother's Day" is one of many plays and films about a magical exchange of persona between two very different characters. You may remember the old "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," in which a dead prizefighter and a live millionaire banker are switched, or the later version with Warren Beatty, "Heaven Can Wait." Sometimes it is a parent and a child who swap bodies--"Like Father, Like Son" starred Dudley Moore; "Freaky Friday" had Jamie Leigh Curtis as the bewildered mother. Two of the best were "Switch," in which a male chauvinist cad comes back to life in the body of gorgeous Ellen Barkin, and "All of Me," in which Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin share one body, rather than switching.
So, in Ruth's play, I start out as the timid, bullied wife, but with the aid of some far-Eastern magic and smoke, I'm soon the very confident, don't-mess-with-me-mister woman in the wife's body. It was a lot of fun to do, and I learned at least three truths that have served me well ever since.
First, I learned about how comedy works. During one rehearsal, Ruth came up to me and said, "You were trying to be funny in that scene, weren't you?" I smiled and said, yes, I was. "Don't!" she scolded. "Let the audience decide if it's funny. YOU play it straight--that's how comedy works."
Second, laughter, once let out of the bag, can be hard to put back in. The portly young man playing the pompous, bullying husband was very nice, pleasant and willing but rather unable. His wooden acting was in danger of nailing this light comedy smack to the floor of the stage, where it wriggled and threatened to die. At one point, when his much-changed wife makes a brazen statement, he is supposed to say, incensed, "I think you must be tiddly!" The actor could not get any energy at all into the line, hard as Ruth tried to pump him up. In a later rehearsal, I happened to be holding a copy of the script as I said my line. For some reason, I whapped the actor in the solar plexus with the folded script, not all that gently. His mouth flew open, his eyes bulged, and he shouted, "I THINK YOU MUST BE TIDDLY!" Energy to spare. Perfect delivery. Ruth was delighted. Except that for all following rehearsals, the entire cast broke up as we approached that line. Try as we would, we couldn't keep from laughing. We were all more than usually nervous opening night, not knowing if we would ruin a key scene. But the treacherous lines came and went without a single smile from us. And the curtain fell to appaluse as refreshing as rain.
The third insight came a few minutes later, when a colleague from the Drama department came up to me and paid the obligatory compliments.
"Ah, Elouise," he said, "Methinks you missed your calling."
"Missed my calling, Charles? How many actors do you know who have what you and I have--captive audiences five days a week, semester after semester? Would you trade the classroom for the stage?"
"Touche!" And we parted, smiling.