Rehearsing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Mamaroneck High in 1958…

In senior year (fall, 1958) at Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, NY, we presented the 1939 play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Mortimer Brewster, the role played by Cary Grant in the 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra, after it had run on Broadway from 1941 to 1944.  (I recall learning at some point that the play, about Mortimer discovering that his two beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, was originally called Bodies in the Cellar.)  Anyway, I just want to tell you about what happened during our dress rehearsal…

Mamaroneck High

Mamaroneck High

We were rehearsing in the full set with costumes on, going through the entire play non-stop [or at least, that was the intention] while the lights were being adjusted and so on.  Our director was out in the audience — Miss Schmidt, I believe — and I was onstage with the two aunts when my fiancée, Elaine Harper, came through the front door.  The dialogue was supposed to go this way:

Elaine: Mortimer!

Mortimer: Elaine!

[They rush to each other and embrace.]

arsenic-and-old-lace-priscilla-lane-cary-grant-1944It sounds simple, eh?  Well, the lovely girl playing Elaine arrived at the door, right on time, stepped into the living room and saw me.

Elaine held out her arms toward me and cried:  “Elaine!”

I stared back at her.  After a few beats, I replied:  “Mortimer?”

We all laughed so hard that the dress rehearsal stopped in its tracks.  It took at least ten minutes to get back into it without cracking up again.

I have no idea how I might have reacted if this had been a genuine performance in front of a packed auditorium in the high school.  But such surprises are part of the joy of acting.  They give you a jolt of new energy.  They put you into a state of sudden, instant aliveness.  And such surprises are not at all “mistakes,” not while you’re on stage, because there’s no choice other than to react in some real, honest way — to deal with the surprise, to “go with” whatever happens, in the moment.  And hopefully to deal with it the way we might do so in life itself.

Maybe I would have said to her, “Well, now, as far as I can recall, you are Elaine, and I — I am Mortimer!”

Or any of a hundred variations of that reply … or of some response that might have been much more clever.

Why have I never forgotten that moment?  The jolt?  The uncontrollable laughter that followed?  I’m not sure that I know the answer, but it must have something to do with the way all those signals in my brain went on alert and scrambled around to make sense of things.  All I really know is that, out of so many other moments involving Arsenic and Old Lace that I’ve long forgotten, that one has stuck with me.

Published in: Uncategorized on December 18, 2012 at 18:19  Leave a Comment  
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Mamaroneck High School – A Photo from Class of 1959

mhs pic

Pulled this one from Facebook, courtesy of classmate Barrie Proctor.

Found myself in the third row from the top…

Third from the left…

The guy with his eyes closed…

Oh, well …

I miss them all!

Published in: on December 16, 2012 at 14:58  Comments (4)  
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