Theater magic and an hour's work turn Bobby Morse into 'Tru'

MAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

October 16, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Flashing the gap-toothed grin he became famous for nearly 30 years ago in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Robert Morse enters his dressing room at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. With his shock of hair and boyish face, the 59-year-old actor still looks like the young upstart he played in that musical.

But it's 12:45 p.m. on a matinee day, and -- thanks to the wonders of makeup -- when Mr. Morse leaves this room in a little more than an hour, he will be transformed into a round-faced, pouty, heavily jowled man with a broad forehead and thinning hair. Specifically, he will look like Truman Capote, the Tony Award-winning role he is reprising in Jay Presson Allen's one-man show, "Tru," here through Oct. 28.

Assisting him in this seemingly magical transformation is his dresser, Liz Spetnagel, who has been with the show since its pre-Broadway premiere at Vassar College two summers ago. Her chief tool is a makeup prosthetic piece, designed by Academy Award-winning makeup artist Kevin Haney and custom molded from a life-mask of Mr. Morse's face, on which Mr. Haney sculpted a likeness of Capote.

These pink foam latex prosthetics -- representing Capote's jowls, chin, upper lip and temples -- cost $200 each, and their edges are so delicate they can be used only once. A box of 30 is under the dressing room counter.

On top of the counter are two busts of Mr. Morse -- a rubber one for the thinning Capote wig, designed by Paul Huntley, and a plaster one covered with the latex sheath he will wear under the wig. "Bobby likes to call it his head condom," Ms. Spetnagel kids.

Taped to the mirror is the cover from the April 12, 1973, issue of Rolling Stone, picturing Capote two years before "Tru" takes place. At the end of this session, however, Mr. Morse will not look exactly like Capote did in 1975.

"In 1975 he was quite obese, quite at his heaviest," Mr. Haney explained over the phone from his laboratory in White Plains, lTC N.Y. "If I'd made him exactly like he was in 1975, it would inhibit Bobby. It would be too much rubber to deal with."

Instead, "I tried to find a Truman Capote face that was close to Bobby," continued Mr. Haney, who spent four weeks designing this makeup and whose credits include working on the films "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Dick Tracy." And, he added, "I think Truman would have liked us to choose a thinner character." (Mr. Morse's costume, however, still includes substantial padding around the waist.)

The actual makeup process begins with Ms. Spetnagel applying aloe gel and zinc powder to Mr. Morse's face to protect his skin and help the various glues adhere better. She then applies the first of those glues -- all of which are types of medical adhesives -- around the actor's mouth, the most mobile part of his face.

The "head condom" comes next, its edges held in place by a different adhesive. "After a year and a half of toxins entering my face," Mr. Morse jokes, "I'm going to be a living example of . . ."

"Freddy Kreuger," Ms. Spetnagel suggests.

The truth is that Mr. Morse has suffered no ill effects since the beginning of the run, when his forehead broke out and was treated with cortisone cream, a container of which now sits unused on the counter.

After the back of the sheath is secured with black electricians tape and a third adhesive, the most dramatic part of the transformation takes place -- the positioning of the prosthetic. Initially six separate pieces, the prosthetic was combined into a single piece halfway through the Broadway run to ease application.

Made of a type of latex that's whipped and baked, "it's lighter than a piece of paper," according to Mr. Haney. "I don't even feel it," Mr. Morse confirms.

As soon as the prosthetic is in place, Mr. Morse's jaw disappears under the characteristic puffy Capote jowls and fleshy neck. "I look a little like Mussolini," he says, putting on an il Duce accent. "We could go any way at this juncture, any character you wanted."

Gluing the prosthetic -- which also conceals a tiny microphone that nestles next to his right ear -- is the most time-consuming process, and while this is going on Ms. Spetnagel prefers her subject to be as quiet as possible. Sometimes he actually falls asleep, Mr. Morse admits, resting his head on the back of his antique red barber chair.

On this occasion, however, once the prosthetic is glued down and Ms. Spetnagel begins covering it with stage makeup, he comments, "I keep thinking of the movie I did, 'The Loved One' -- Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy making up [corpses]. I wonder if this is what it'll be like?"

"No, it'll be easier," Ms. Spetnagel shoots back. "You won't move."

After adding an array of flesh tones, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick -- to change the lines of Mr. Morse's mouth into Capote's thin lips -- Ms. Spetnagel secures the wig. The final step is a false tooth, affixed with dental alginate, to fill the gap between Mr. Morse's front teeth.

Mr. Morse thrusts out his jaw and tilts his head, Capote style. The time is 1:50 p.m., and the effect recalls the reaction of "Tru's" playwright and director, Mrs. Allen, the first time she saw Mr. Morse in makeup. "It was absolutely eerie," she said. "I watched Robert Morse disappear, and I was suddenly face to face with Truman Capote."

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