In the theatre, people say, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” They also say, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
There was a time when I had quite the interesting role that some might think small. The role required me to die before going on stage and earn some laughs, too. I was in college and the theatre department was putting on “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I won’t bore you with a recitation of the entire plot, but my character conflicts with Jonathan Brewster and his partner in crime Dr. Einstein.
This happens off-stage and I make the mistake of saying Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff, which he does. Dr. Einstein, a plastic surgeon, gave Jonathan a new face to hide him from the law, as they’re both criminals. The problem was he saw a Boris Karloff movie and got drunk right before he operated!
Thus, Jonathan does look like Karloff. He tends to kill anyone who mentions it. As a little side note, Boris Karloff actually played the role on Broadway.
Hence, the reason my character, Mr. Spenalzo, is dead when he makes his appearance. Jonathan carries me right down the center aisle and passes me to Dr. Einstein through a window; he then put me in the window seat. This was where we encountered a slight technical problem.
At that time, I am six-two and was about one hundred seventy-five pounds, at the time. The actor playing Einstein was about a foot shorted and fifty pounds lighter. He had a bit of an issue handling me, especially as I was supposed to be dead and couldn’t help him.
We eventually worked it out. He just kind of dropped me in the open window seat, grabbed my hand and “dragged” me so that I lay flat in it. I always helped with the final process.
Then, as the performances progressed, we started to “embellish” my role. After all, it was a comedy. When he’d drop me in the seat, I’d lay on my back with my legs straight up in the air. He’d push them down; I’d sit up. One night some girls in the front row even screamed!
He’d push me down; one leg would go up. He pushed that down, the other went up and then he got me laid out good and proper. It never failed to get a laugh. One night, it got a huge a round of applause. I was almost tempted to arise and take a bow.
Then, one night, I felt a slight pain in a finger. As I was in a dark box, I couldn’t do anything about it. Later, in the Green Room, everyone gasped at the sight of me.
My right hand covered in blood, my suit had a bloodstain over the chest! I had caught my pinky on a nail and it had slowly bled. The wound was tiny and easily mended, but it gave me an idea.
The next night, I got a bottle of stage blood. I added trickles coming from the corners of my mouth and then streaks across my hand. The next night, I added a bullet hole to my temple and a trickle from it.
Every night, the flow of blood increased. The other actors never knew what to expect when they looked in the box; and the two leads said they were hard-pressed not to burst out laughing at the sight of me. My next addition to the show exacerbated circumstances.
I started writing out notes on sheets of paper, in nice big letters, so the actors could read them. Given my position in the window seat, so long as I was lying down, the audience couldn’t see me. One night there’d be a note saying: “Rumble Seats Are a Tight Fit,” which was a reference to where Jonathan and Einstein had stuffed my body. The next night, something else and so on and so forth over the course of the run.
The show was never dull, I had much fun and I even got to make a curtain call, blood and all. Yeah, no small roles, people. I made the role my own, and loved every minute of it.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.