By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles. Today, we’re speaking with Bye Bye Birdie’s Jayne Houdyshell.
Playing Mae Peterson might seem like a no-brainer. After all, she’s the classic meddling mother, and as she barrels through the musical Bye Bye Birdie
, sending her son Albert on an endless guilt trip, she hurls one great laugh line after another. Outrageous, outspoken, and wrapped in fur, she’s the kind of character an audience is destined to love.
So the actress who plays her has it easy, right? Not necessarily. If her jokes are pushed too hard, then she’ll become a charmless caricature.
Jayne Houdyshell understands. She’s playing Mae in the Roundabout Theatre’s Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie
(now in previews), and she says, “I want the audience to see a whole, viable, believable person up there.”
Houdyshell’s performance gives Mae subtlety. She delivers her jokes matter-of-factly, as though Mae would never realize that she’s saying something funny. She also makes it clear that Mae is angling for her son’s
attention, not the audience’s. She pulls Albert (John Stamos) aside and conspiratorially explains why his girlfriend Rosie (Gina Gershon) is a disaster, and that clear purpose makes her lines even funnier.
Houdyshell is known for that kind of craft. Whether she’s playing an artist’s feisty mother in Well
(a role that earned her a 2006 Tony Award nomination) or a nine year-old girl in this summer’s musical adaptation of the children’s novel Coraline
, she injects her work with thoughtfulness.
For Bye Bye Birdie
, she focused on the comic rhythms in Michael Stewart’s book. “I approached a lot of the work from the viewpoint of, ‘What’s the joke? What’s the setup?’” she says. “It’s very scientific, the way I approached this role. That’s antithetical to the way I approached Coraline
, where I was focused on entering a child’s state of mind.”
But that’s not to say her performance in Birdie
is a math problem. When costume designer Gregg Barnes delivered Mae Peterson’s wardrobe, for instance, Houdyshell made an emotional connection to her character that she can’t quite explain. “Transformative elements sometimes happen consciously, and they sometimes happen magically,” she says. “And for me, the clothes were a magical thing. She’s just been informed by the hair and what it feels like to be in those clothes.”
Plus, even in Houdyshell’s most carefully planned moments, there’s bound to be an element of “magic” when she’s in front of a crowd. She says, “When those sublime moments happen, when everything clicks in, I can’t ascribe that to technique. When a joke really clicks, I know what I’ve set up, but what makes it funny? I don’t know. I’m just grateful to be able to do the leg work and then get out of the way.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.