May 28, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I told myself when I moved back to New York City nearly two years ago, that I would no longer act like a tourist once I settled in. For the thirty years I lived in Los Angeles, whenever I would visit my home town (I was born in Brooklyn), I behaved as if I was someplace like London. I always found myself cramming in shows so I would hit the maximum number without missing a 2:00, 3:00, 7:00, 7:30 or 8:00 o’clock curtain. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.
But this is the merry month of May, when catching up with all the shows you missed in April (Broadway’s busiest month) catches up to you. And if you’re of a mind (as I am) to see most of the Tony nominated plays and musicals prior to the ceremony on June 11th, or to see things that are closing before some shows submit to the doldrums of a fickle summer box office, then you are perpetually on the run. Which is how over the past 10 days, I saw 9 shows and 1 concert.
In going over the list, it was fun to discover that I saw every conceivable style of play and musical: a contemporary play written in a burst of anger and passion in one week from the Pulitzer and Tony winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall); a play about four New Jersey-ites facing the uphill battles of the new economy and physical disabilities (Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living); an old fashioned melodrama from 1939 with a lot left to say about what’s going on in 2017 (Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes); a new-fangled and entirely fresh new musical out of Canada (Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away); a hilarious old-fashioned farce from the Brits — who do this sort of thing awfully well (Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis’s The Play That Goes Wrong); The Antipodes, a wickedly original comedy woven from whole cloth by the Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker (The Flick); a 90-minute forceful and riveting comedy-drama utilizing characters from one of the most well-known plays by the father of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen (Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2); a 3-hour forceful and riveting historical comedy-drama of enormous complexity (J.T. Rogers’s Oslo); and last, but by no means least, Arlington, a conceptual play with dance, possibly written in a fevered dream state, by the Tony winning playwright Enda Walsh (Once).
Oh, and the concert? Those game gals Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller, both Tony nominated Broadway vets who arrived in New York City around the same time (the late 1950s), and who came up through the ranks together, still going strong. Penny Fuller was most recently seen in the revival of Sunday in the Park With George, and her rendition of “Beautiful,” one of Stephen Sondheim’s most haunting songs, in a duet with Jake Gyllenhaal, was one of the evening’s highlights. And Anita Gillette can next be seen beginning in July at the Second Stage on West 43rd Street in A Parallelogram, the New York premiere of a 2010 play by Bruce Norris, winner of the Pulitzer and Tony for Clybourne Park. Combining their talents and shared experiences in a musical concert they cleverly title Sin Twisters, these two ageless wonders are a joy, never more so when delving into the title song from Cabaret, belting it out with no less drive than they did when each played Sally Bowles (first Penny, then Anita) during its three-year run on Broadway in the late 1960s.
Though I could provide mini-reviews and even rank the nine shows I saw from better to best, I hope it’s enough to say that they are all worth seeing (for one reason or another) and each one will challenge you as an audience. And after all, what more can you ask when going to the theatre? I’m asking for a leap of faith, that in by not giving away anything by the way of their stories, that you might want to play a bit of a game with yourselves. See if what I’m about to recommend as an experiment might work for you, which is this: the next time you go to the theatre, try and know as little as possible about what you are going to see.
I know, I know … with ticket prices what they are who is going to pay for something that hasn’t already been pre-vetted to whet your interest? But if it’s a relatively cheap seat (under $30), or if you are someone’s guest, simply don’t do any research beyond the recommendation from that friend, or read a paragraph or two by by a trusted critic you often see eye-to-eye with. Just go in cold. I have taken to doing this whenever I can with my subscription tickets to places like the Public, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage or the Signature Theatre. Since I’ve already paid for the show months before, my preferred method is to then not read any reviews beforehand, so that when I sit down in my seat, I’m an open vessel. And the kicker is that I don’t even open the Playbill (some theatres are actually helping in this by not distributing a program until the play is over — an idea I really like).
I’m fortunate to get comps to a number of shows and lately, when I take someone along, I ask them to play along with me. I tell them not to inquire from an usher if there is an intermission, or find out how many people are in the play, or where it’s set. Let’s go on the journey without knowing where it starts. Just let the curtain go up (if there is one) and be transported to where the playwright, the actors and the director want to take you. You’ll be surprised how effective this can be.
It’s flying blind … and it works. It can really enhance the experience. There’s also no risk in it taking away from it either. Try it next time, if you can. And if it’s something like the outrageous The Play That Goes Wrong, “May the farce be with you.”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book