May 17, 2013

To Text or To Hurl

On Wednesday night I attended Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the immersive Russian-indie-rock musical fashioned from a section of War and Peace; I'm reporting on the piece's gestation in the fertile musical/theatrical mind of Dave Malloy and its birthing in the capable hands of director Rachel Chavkin and assorted producers, or something like that—and I was witness to the now-infamous spectacle, in the midst of the show's second act, of a thirtysomething woman, an audience member, purposefully crossing the entire supper-club space, literally in the midst of the performance, flinging open the huge double doors that constitute the theater entrance, and being summarily whisked out of sight.

Only the next morning did I find out what spurred her exit: a particularly bold move by the New Criterion's theater critic, Kevin D. Williamson—also a spiky, occasionally reasonable columnist at National Review. Williamson reported on the incident at NRO, to the huzzahs of many. He liked the show, in short, but hated the audience. The women near him were, he says,

talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied. 
It was not. The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business. 
So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.
Two things: The immersive club environs that are unique to NP&TGCO1812, in which the audience is served a meal and drinks (albeit by waiters who are only present before the show and during intermission, never during the show) constitute precisely the kind of space in which theatergoing rules seem sufficiently bendy that it's not surprising that someone might feel it was OK to check their phone...and maybe check it again. But it's also the kind of intimate space—my wife and I were seated at a small table sharing plates of food with three strangers, and not talking to them was not an option—in which such breaches would be even more annoying than usual.

Annoying enough to justify throwing a phone? I'm not sure. I spoke to Williamson yesterday and he counted himself "proud" of his action, in particular its speed. And though he reiterated that he quite liked the show, he neither expected to write a review ("I guess that would be unprofessional, to review a show I haven’t seen all the way through") nor to return to see it to the end ("I don't know if they'll let me in again—their security guard was pretty annoyed with me"). He conceded that the boundary-blurring environment was likely to lead to mishaps ("I knocked over a glass myself before the show started"), but drew the line at the woman's behavior: "People just need to learn to behave."

The show's producers, perhaps understandably, see this a little differently. While making no excuses for the texting woman, producer Howard Kagan, one of the show's lead producers with his wife Janet Kagan, told me he was astonished that Williamson "hurled the cell phone it across a dark room; he could have killed someone." (In Williamson's slight defense, he told me, as he did the awed Gothamist, that he was aiming for a door on the theater's south wall—fair enough, except that that door also served, as did all the doors, as an entrance/exit for fast-moving performers.) And Randy Weiner, also a producer on the show, who knows a thing or two about immersive theater (he's also one of the forces behind the unstoppable choose-your-own-adventure hit Sleep No More), told me, "If it’s bad to text in a show, it strikes me as 10 times worse to take someone's phone and throw it across the room."

Meanwhile, on American Theatre's Facebook page, as on Twitter and on Gothamist and elsewhere, Williamson is being hailed as a folk hero. The impulse is understandablehe acted out a fantasy many of us have hadbut in the cold light of day, it's fair to say that Williamson probably overreacted, and his gloating looks a little unseemly. I might be in favor of a solution like mandatory cellphone checking-at-the-door, except that iPhones are now default timepieces (did I look at my phone during the show to check the time? I might have). And I'm not sure more vigilant ushers are the answer, in this case at least—that would surely render the show's all-around staging untenably crowded.

One silver lining here is that the show itself is no shrinking violet, and the thick-skinned cast and band have been working with audiences as essentially their co-stars since the show's original staging at Ars Nova, so this kerfuffle neither shook their performance nor ruffled the audience for more than a few seconds, at least from where I sat. The woman's exit, in fact, was so matter-of-fact and purposeful that I almost thought for a moment that it was staged.

And it's not like this issue hasn't come up before. In an interview I conducted before that night's performance, director Rachel Chavkin told me about her conversations with producers:

It's been a lot of me shouting, "People can't expect to be coming to a club." They will be sorely disappointed when a 2-and-a-half-hour opera unfolds before them, and we will be disappointed when they want to text during the 2-and-a-half-hour opera.
Arguably, this may have been a previews issue; reviews like this rave from the Times' Charles Isherwood may help define (and refine) expectations of audiences coming in. Still, while this kind of behavior may be deplorable, I would expect to see more of it, not less, at shows like this, where the lines between staging and seating are blurred, and the show is designed to effectively close ranks and withstand it. "Immersive," after all, doesn't just mean intermingling audience with performers; a big part of what we're immersing ourselves in with such a show is each other's space. And in 21st century New York City—as in a genuine Russian supper club, I'd wager—that's not always a pretty or a comfortable arrangement.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, judging from Isherwood's "rave," the whole production sounds dreadful - and honestly, the very idea of doing a pop opera of a scene from "War and Peace" in the meat-packing district screams "New York bullshit!" at a truly piercing volume.

So hooray for the critic who disrupted the whole shebang, and who actually (almost) destroyed a cell phone to boot.

My only question is - why does it always seem to be women who indulge in this kind of misbehavior? I was recounting some idiotic behavior at a recent Mark Morris dance concert to some friends, and two of them cut me off with the comment, "It was a woman, wasn't it." When I replied in the affirmative, they both shrugged: there's nothing you can do about women in the theatre, seemed to be their point. I disagreed at the time, but I've been paying close attention since then to serious disruptions in the theatre and the concert hall - and my friends have indeed been right: so far, 100% women. The whisperers, the screen-readers, the munchers, and of course the ringing-cell-phone owners - for the last month, they've all been women. I'm sure I've seen men guilty of these crimes in the past, but I can't think of any such male perps in recent weeks.

What's up with this? It is a puzzlement.