I was in New York for a few days recently. I saw one play, called The Humans, written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello. I’ll say this for it, it was the perfect length. The older I get, the more I appreciate a 90 minute play, or movie. I don’t remember the last time I saw a 3 hour Oscar nominated movie. I think it was The Last Emperor, which I did like, but really, think how amazing that movie would have been if it had been 90 brisk, gilded minutes.
About The Humans, there were things that I liked about it and I must say, I did think about the play for days after, but, did I like it? I don’t know that I did. For the first hour, I sat there watching the talented actors act. Reed Birney and Cassie Beck, I saw a couple years ago in a Broadway revival of Picnic. I’ve been a fan of Sarah Steele since seeing her in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give. Jayne Houdyshell shines in everything she’s in. So for the first hour, I sat in my seat, laughing in the right places, liking the actors, even liking the characters the actors were playing. I felt the play building to something, or that it was supposed to be building to something, but, for whatever reason, the play was not exactly percolating for me. I wasn’t connecting.
I’d had a little bit to drink before the play. I even went so far as to sneak in my flask. I had looked forward to 90 minutes of sneaking nips until right before curtain when one of the ushers sat in the seat in front of me. My friendly friend Michael asked if this was his first chance to see the play and the usher replied that he was sitting there as a precaution. It was his job to make sure no one took pictures of the play. Also, sitting in the row of seats on the other side of the aisle, were two men with notebooks in their hands. “It’s the director,” Michael knowingly and accurately informed me.
Like I said, for the first hour, I sat in my seat, paying close attention waiting for a dramatic moment to hook me and then, something happened. That it happened at the moment where I had quietly unscrewed my flask and prepared to bring it to my mouth, well, I guess you could say it added to the drama. On my right, I could see one of the men with notebooks, waving wildly at the usher in front of me. Oh shit, he saw my flask, I thought. The usher looked at the waving man, who pointed at him and then pointed at something or someone on the other side of the theater. (Not me, thankfully.) The usher did not respond appropriately so the director waved even more wildly, even more angrily, pointing more pointedly. The usher sat in his seat looking in the direction the director pointed but, for whatever reason, stayed in his seat.
And in my seat, my heart pumped wildly. Like a tennis match, I looked at the director, then to the usher, then to the other notetaker (the writer, I presumed), then back to the director. I searched in the direction the director pointed but saw no patron of the arts raising his iPhone to document the play’s actions. Eventually, the director’s waves subsided, he sat quietly scowling. I tried to return to the action on stage, tried to invest in the story. But I had been taken out.
A few minutes later, the director was waving wildly again. He waved at the usher who did nothing. Infuriated, the director stood and stomped out of the theater. Seconds later, another usher went to whatever it was that the director had been pointing at. Slowly, an elderly couple, stood up and were escorted out of the theater. As they hobbled, I wondered what they had done. They didn’t exactly seem savvy enough to own a smartphone, I couldn’t imagine they had taken pictures. What crime had this aged duo committed? I hoped it wasn’t flask related.
I never did find out why the ejectees had been ejected. When I looked at the Playbill, I did learn the angry director was Broadway legend, Joe Mantello. (I don’t think I’ll ever be invited to brunch at his house.)
As it turned out, the play did build to big drama that unfolded and emitted in the final 10 or 20 minutes. As I tried to focus on the life on the stage, I couldn’t stop thinking about all that had unfolded and emitted just off stage. It was all the things I hope to see when I go to the theater or the movies: anger, comedy, exaggeration, sadness, cruelty, wonder, confrontation.
That my experience was colored so vividly by what happened around me is, perhaps, a credit to one of the themes of the play. If our lives contain an ongoing fragility, why shouldn’t a night at the theater?