Morse's Spirited 'Tru'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York - Robert Morse got lots of mail during the nine months he portrayed the late Truman Capote on Broadway in the one-man show, "Tru." He heard from friends of Capote; he heard from fans of Capote; he even heard from psychics who insisted that the late author's spirit was on stage with him.

Nearly every day there were letters at the Booth Theater. One day last month - shortly before the Broadway production closed so Mr. Morse could take it on a national tour, which begins Tuesday at the Mechanic Theatre - he received a letter containing two 1984 newspaper accounts of Capote's memorial service.

What caught the actor's eye was a quote from a tribute delivered by author William Styron. Capote, Mr. Styron said, was a writer "who could make words dance and sing, change colors mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart."

That quote might well describe Mr. Morse's portrayal, one which won him Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards. And yet, "Before he did it, everybody said it's impossible," recalls producer Lewis Allen, adding that prior to the show's pre-Broadway run, one potential presenter had insisted, "He's not an actor, he's a performer."

There's little doubt that until "Tru," Mr. Morse was best known as a performer - most specifically, as the lead performer in the stage and film versions of the musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which won him his first Tony nearly 30 years ago.

But being an entertainer was a quality that Jay Presson Allen, "Tru's" writer and director (and Mr. Allen's wife), was seeking. The script includes several instances of direct audience address, and "You need somebody with some experience with personal contact with the audience," she explained.

Nor did it concern her that Mr. Morse was best known for musical comedy - not drama. "Comedians do the hardest thing there is," she explained. "I think it's a lot easier for them to make the transition into drama than the other way around."

To this day, Mr. Morse, 59, looks remarkably the same as he did when he portrayed J. Pierpont Finch, the gap-toothed, boyish go-getter in "How to Succeed." Sitting opposite him in a restaurant, it's easy to imagine him kicking up his heels and bursting into a few bars of J. Pierpont's anthem, "I Believe in You." On the other hand, without makeup, without the characteristic sibilant diction or fluttery body language, he bears almost no resemblance to Capote.

Yet in "Tru" his transformation is so complete that during the Boston tryout an old friend of the actor's demanded a refund, insisting the man on stage couldn't be Mr. Morse. And many of those who knew Capote - most notably Johnny Carson's second wife Joanne, who lent the production several of the late author's possessions, including his sofa - have found the similarity uncanny.

Equally uncanny was Ms. Carson's revelation that Capote was a fan of Mr. Morse's, having seen him in "How to Succeed" more than a half-dozen times. "She said that he would watch me singing, 'I Believe in You' and he would just scream out with glee, 'That's my spirit up there. That's my spirit,'" said Mr. Morse, adopting Capote's high-pitched voice and explaining that he only met the author once, in passing, in a restaurant. In addition, he deliberately kept his research to a minimum; he wanted to approach the role as an actor creating a character, not an impersonation.

So maybe the psychics have a point after all. Mr. Morse said he's received many letters insisting that "the whole evening is so lost in Truman that we don't see Robert Morse there; it must be Truman up there and his spirit is abounding."

Then, with a chuckle, he acknowledged, "The other night a plant fell out of the blue and nobody knows how it fell. It was on a stand and all of the sudden I turned around - boom! - and it went. The lights have gone out at times and there have been strange happenings up there."

"But," he added, "I don't think that if I really got sick that he would do the part."

Not that Mr. Morse wouldn't occasionally welcome some help. "Tru" is his first one-man show, and he admitted, "I had a severe panic attack while learning this script."

Rehearsals were especially intense. "I'm the only one," he explained. "It wasn't like you could say, 'Time out. Will you work with the dancers while I relax?'"

Yet recalling those rehearsals, Mrs. Allen lauded the fact that Mr. Morse "will try anything." That openness to new things helps explain why he took on "Tru" in the first place. From his first reading of the script, he felt he couldn't "say no to this - dammit!"

The opportunity to try something new was only part of the attraction, however. While he insists, "I'm just an actor playing a part," he also acknowledges that the text "touched a lot of things ... I had to work on, a lot of feelings."

Those feelings included the loneliness and emptiness Capote confronts in "Tru," which is set in 1975, shortly after Esquire published the first excerpt of his fictionalized account of high society, "Answered Prayers."

An even closer chord was struck by Capote's alcoholism. Although it's clearly not Mr. Morse's favorite subject, he is not averse to discussing the fact that, as he puts it, "Many, many, many years ago I ingested alcohol ... and many, many, many, many years ago it got progressively worse." And, he explained, by "alcohol," he means "anything that's habit-forming and affects [you] above the shoulders."

"Finally," he continued, "I decided, many, many, many years ago, to get help, talk to people who knew about alcoholism, and I'm not mentioning any name of any program, but I did go to a place that could be found in the beginning of your phone book. And that has changed my life."

He admits he's hesitant to get up on a soapbox and preach about his battle with alcoholism. "I don't ever want to sound self-serving - like look how wonderful I am," he explained. "Stopping drinking is easy. Staying stopped is difficult." Even cutting down on cigarettes appears to be a trial; to help resist temptation, he hands the pack over to a bartender, who doles out the cigarettes one by one.

Mostly, though, Mr. Morse doesn't want to overstate the fact that a recovering alcoholic happens to be portraying Capote. "If I was doing "How to Succeed" now instead of Truman Capote, these questions would never come up" he said.

Which brings up the matter of just what Mr. Morse has been doing in the three decades between "How to Succeed" and "Tru." Although he's had a relatively low profile, he's quick to point out that he's been working steadily. That work has ranged from dinner theaters to soaps to voice-overs to London's Old Vic. For one season, 1968-1969, he even had his own television series, "That's Life." But when "Tru" came along, Mr. Morse hadn't been on Broadway since he starred in a short-lived musical called "So Long, 174th Street" in 1976.

"I've made a living in theater and TV, but I think that when you're not on Broadway, or not making a major motion picture, or in a series, that the culture feels you're not visible," Mr. Morse said. "Even now when I'll be touring this, they'll be saying, 'Where is he?'"

As it happens, not only has Mr. Morse been working as an actor, but so have several members of his family. At one point over the summer, he, his brother and his daughter were all appearing simultaneously on New York stages. Robin, the second of Mr. Morse's three grown daughters, opened in the acclaimed new John Guare play, "Six Degrees of Separation," Which moves to Broadway in November; and Mr. Morse's older brother, Richard, a drama professor at Principia College in Illinois, was performing a one-man play he'd written about Moliere.

The family's involvement in the arts stems back to Mr. Morse's parents. His father owned movie theaters throughout New England and, before her marriage, his mother was a professional pianist. They were always supportive, recalled Mr. Morse, who grew up in the Boston suburbs. Following a stint in the Navy, he bypassed college to try his luck as an actor in New York. But not since "How to Succeed" has New York been as good to him as it was this past year.

This has also been a big year in Mr. Morse's personal life. Shortly after "Tru" opened last December, he married his second wife, Elizabeth Roberts, who works in advertising in Los Angeles. His wife, who plans to join him at various stops along the tour, is expecting their first child in April.

"Tru" is currently booked for the next six months in Boston; Stamford, Conn.; Dallas; Lexington, Ky.; Cincinnati; Louisville; Iowa City; San Francisco; and Los Angeles. After that - though he claims he doesn't like to look too far ahead - Mr. Morse wouldn't mind playing other dramatic roles.

And now that he's proved he can do it, what about another one-man show? "Harpo Marx," he joked. "Something with no words."

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