The Stars What I Lured
The New York Times, 30 March 2003
Comedy, as an old theatrical adage has it, is a very serious business. It was therefore with utter seriousness that I explained to the distinguished British actor Ralph Fiennes exactly why he should stand onstage in a large dress and bouffant white wig and dance inanely, while three other actors made fun of the way he pronounces his name.
The occasion was a lunch at which I attempted to persuade one of our truly great classical actors to allow me to direct him in the London premiere of "The Play What I Wrote," which, after more than 300 performances in the West End, opens tonight at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway.
I explained that in the show he would be subject to the kind of delicious comic ridicule that was a regular feature of the British television classic "The Morecambe and Wise Show," which largely inspired our new play. This venerated double act (which might be compared to Hope and Crosby in their "Road" movie years), saved their most memorable surrealist teasing for the great and the good of the acting world. Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, et al., queued up for the privilege of being mocked in the benignly anarchic world that was created by a sublime pairing of comic energies.
In our production, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl are aided and abetted by Toby Jones. It would be they, I explained to Ralph, who would be in charge of his comic demise. There can be few people unaware that Ralph pronounces his name Rafe (rhymes with safe). With some trepidation, I explained to Ralph that the opening exchange would therefore probably go something like this:
HAMISH: Good evening, Ralph.
And yes, the rest of the show would be as silly as that. Toby would "interpret" Ralph's brilliant performance in "The English Patient" by mumbling distractedly through a bandaged head, "There's a posh bird out in the desert, rolling rags in a cave." As I listed the full extent of the indignities, I had the pleasure of seeing Ralph crumple over his tiramisu into a fit of tear-inducing giggles.
Still wary of what might be his true reaction, however, I asserted that the audience, if they found it at all funny, would be laughing with him, not at him. He responded in a flash with the kind of remark that confirmed him as a perfect choice: "I prefer to think that they'll be laughing near me." We had our first Mystery Guest Star.
Ralph's reaction was typical of the 30-odd Mystery Guest Stars who have graced the production since its original run in Liverpool nearly two years ago. All seem to enjoy the teasing of the audience that runs throughout the show about who the guest star might be. There are many red herrings along the way, with a galaxy of possible arrivals. When the guest finally shows (the actual timing of the appearance varies from night to night), we have already established that anyone optimistic enough to appear is in for a light roasting. And to our surprise and delight, it's the guests themselves who have contributed mightily to our gag count.
It was Liam Neeson who gamely offered up that he is regularly addressed by fans as Leslie Nielsen. It was Sting himself who asked that he be given an emergency onstage communication, and, yes, it was a message in a bottle. As he read the note in performance, a scarlet spotlight picked him out and Sean was able to interrupt by yelling to the lighting booth, "Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light." Roger Moore was happily mistaken for Mary Tyler Moore, David Suchet was thrilled to be referred to as David Sachet, Zoe Caldwell didn't mind being called Zo Zo Gabor at all and Nathan Lane saw no problem in being addressed as Nathan Hale, the man who said, "I have but one wife to give — and she lives in the country."
The only occasional concern for guests is opening-night anxiety. Will they remember their lines? On this, I can be helpful and specific. First, the main cast members have, by far, the bulk of the work. They have also taken part in several hundred Guest Star rehearsals and so know the Guest Star lines backwards. If the Guest Star happens to say them backwards, our boys will come to the rescue. "You cannot go wrong!" is what I have confidently said to Bob Geldof, Twiggy, Ewan McGregor and everyone else.
Unless, of course, you happen to be me. On my own first appearance as a Guest Star, my memory went blank on my very first line. This involved the relatively unchallenging, "I am Kenneth Branagh." During the dance, I fell over, and to complete Noël Coward's holy trinity of things to avoid, I actually walked into a piece of scenery during my last entrance.