The Queen of Transformation

From `The Odd Couple' to `Later Life,' Carole Shelley keeps audiences guessing

`HAVE no delusions - you will only play the ingenue's funny friend.''

When in her late teens, Carole Shelley heard these words of caution from drama teachers who were certain her acting roles would be limited. Three decades later, she has built a career that has stunned Broadway audiences in the widest possible range of roles.

That virtuosity is now evident in ``Later Life,'' the new A.R. Gurney Off-Broadway play featuring her as five distinct characters, coming and going in the space of 96 minutes.

Ms. Shelley burst onto the American theater scene in 1965, playing one of the indomitable Pigeon sisters in Neil Simon's ``The Odd Couple.'' She and Monica Evans went on to re-create the giggly pair in London, in the film version, and even showed up in the '70s television series. This years-long association caused the industry to identify her too closely with the role.

``It took a lot of living down. We did it so well people thought that was who we were,'' Shelley says. For years after, she could not find serious dramatic work, until her breakthrough at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. She played Rosalind in ``As You Like It.'' A string of wildly eccentric parts in full-scale comedies followed, from ``Noises Off'' to ``Lettice and Lovage,'' but her Tony Award came for a dramatic triumph in ``The Elephant Man.''

Settled now into a comfortable New York apartment a few steps from Central Park, Shelley reflects on her work while keeping a watchful eye on two playful cats roaming the kitchen.

``I've been lucky this year,'' she says in her clipped, deliberate speaking style heightened by its British resonance. ``I've been in two of the best plays of the decade - this, and ``The Destiny of Me,'' (Larry Kramer's provocative survey of the life of a young gay man growing up in the Eisenhower era and later battling the powers of indifference during the age of AIDS).

Shelley, who played the man's mother, was obliged to go from age 40 to age 90 ``without any makeup or wigs. It changed my life, as far as doing character parts is concerned, and I'm mad about it. In `Later Life,' it's even more wonderful, because I get to be glamorous, and then old, and then strange, and at the end, glamorous again,'' she says.

Critics and audiences alike have been amazed at her transformations in the play, as she brings to life an expansive hostess, an indulgent retiree's wife, a zestful Southerner transplanted to Boston, a party habitue who seems to have been stood up, and an earnest violinist.

Shelley credits this facility to her early years ``doing a great deal of old-fashioned revue work, Julius Monk-type revues, where you would sing, you would dance, you would do sketches. Nothing took more than a minute, a minute-and-a-half, two minutes, tops. You became good at creating a character instantly, so the audience could relax and enjoy it. Instant recognition - `I know who this person is, I know her history.'''

Her skills at timing and character delineation have brought depth to even the most familiar of character types. In this show, she says, ``you don't have the luxury of two-and-a-half hours to establish a character, to grow, or show facets.'' To personalize characters, ``I pull [ideas] from people on the street, people down the hall, my late mother, whom I nursed for 10 years.''

What audiences appreciate is Shelley's ability to fashion the most powerful delivery a playwright could hope for.

``Part of it is having done a great deal of comedy. And partially, it's manipulative, in the best and nicest sense of the word.'' She attests to the difficulty, however, adding, ``it is harder to make 300 people laugh at the same thing than it is to make 300 people wince at an emotional moment.'' And the audience's reaction is an integral element in making the performance work.

In ``Later Life,'' she has noticed that ``there's usually a fair mixture of younger people, middle-aged people and older people in the house.'' An older crowd gets a different joy out of the evening, she says, which tells the story of two people who meet again in their 50s after a brief encounter during their youth. Older audience members ``smile loudly, rather than laugh out loud. They don't want to miss anything. They may not make a lot of noise, but you can tell that they're listening.''

Shelley recalls an incident early in her career where her experience lent support to another veteran comedy actor, Jack Lemmon, during the rehearsals for the filming of ``The Odd Couple.''

``He asked Monica and me to teach him the scenes we'd been playing on the stage. He said, `What you've been doing is perfection, and I don't want to change a thing.''' Lemmon told her he sought their help because he wanted the scenes to get the same laughs that the stage version did.

``That way,'' Shelley quotes Lemmon as saying, ``the film editor would not have to cut in more frames or take out frames,'' ensuring a funny sequence. ``By rehearsing with us, he got an idea of the length of the laughs.''

The actress's career began at the age of five, and she remembers that, in her youth, ``there was a whole group of little gamine blonds'' who set the standard, such as Barbara Bel Geddes, Betsy von Furstenberg, and Barbara Rush. ``Actually, for my generation, Shirley MacLaine was a mold-breaker. And, of course, Barbra Streisand.''

Trained initially as a dancer, Shelley considers an accident in which she broke her foot fortuitous. Today, she says she looks forward to expanding her work in character roles and to occasionally lecturing to acting students. A directing career may be in her future, but she is careful to note that she's not ready to stop acting, because she enjoys it too much.

``If a good part came along while I was directing, I'd drop it like a hotcake.'' Shelley lets out a trademark throaty laugh, and compares her reaction to those firehouse dalmatians that spring to life at the sound of a fire alarm. ``The spots would fly off, I'd be moving so fast!''

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