For Actors and Audiences, Smoking Can Be a Drag

By Sean O'Driscoll
Associated Press
Saturday, May 31, 2008

NEW YORK -- In the first scene of "The Country Girl" at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, actor Peter Gallagher stabs a cigarette in the air to make a point or two.

Lucas Caleb Rooney, who plays a theater manager, puffs nervously on a cigarette and listens. Chip Zien, who portrays a calculating theater producer, draws slowly on a cigar as he watches Gallagher's impassioned speech.

Soon they are joined by Remy Auberjonois's earnest, young writer, who trails his own cigarette across stage. Within minutes, they collectively send a sweet-smelling pillow of smoke wafting into the audience at the revival of the Clifford Odets 1950s classic about a washed-up actor trying for a comeback.

The show's star, Morgan Freeman, said from the first rehearsal that he didn't want to smoke. "That's okay," said stage manager Barclay Stiff. "His part doesn't specifically call for smoking. There's plenty of smoke to go around as it is."

"The Country Girl" is not alone in setting the mood with cigarettes this season: It's light-up time on and off-Broadway.

Ever since 2003 when New York City banned smoking in enclosed public spaces, theater directors have been walking a thin line between artistic freedom and legal necessity. Under a special exemption for the arts, theaters are allowed to use tobacco-free cigarettes -- usually sweet-smelling herbal cigarettes.

Onstage at "South Pacific" in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, GIs slap one another on the back as they light up at will. In "Boeing-Boeing" at the Longacre Theatre, Christine Baranski sensuously ignites a cigarette that can be sniffed in the balcony's back rows. In "Good Boys and True" at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, Kellie Overbey brings back the 1980s with the pull of a cigarette. In "The Four of Us," off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, two guys puff heavily as they discuss their lives.

How does secondhand smoke in theaters affect audience members? Some aren't bothered at all. Vincent Cali, a Texan who recently saw "The Country Girl," is forgiving, noting that the smell cleared quickly after the initial blast. "It goes with the '50s," he said with the shrug.

But while herbal smoke generally doesn't linger on the audience as much as the tobacco equivalent, theater staff admit that some audience members see it as an intrusion from a less socially aware time.

"In a small theater, or where the audience surrounds the stage, the audience is always out of control as soon as a cigarette is pulled out," says Stiff.

"Some people really do get worked up," reports Bartlett Sher, the director of the Tony-nominated "South Pacific." "You will hear people coughing their lungs out on purpose as soon as an actor lights a single cigarette."

In a "South Pacific" production that has insisted on historic accuracy, having a smoking-free 1940s seemed ludicrous. "It's the 1940s. How could we not" have smoking GIs, says Sher.

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