NEW YORK — Slowly, painstakingly, theatergoing is making its way back to three live dimensions — and we're all learning the rules of engagement. On Friday night, the process began for me outside the Kraine Theater on East Fourth Street, where I was about to attend a solo performance by Mike Daisey. And one unhappy couple who thought they were attending, too — couldn't.
They hadn’t noted the warning in the marketing materials: that admission required proof of full vaccination and that it had to have been at least 14 days since the last shot.
“I spent $100 on tickets I can’t use,” the man groused as he tried to argue with one of the theater’s representatives, and then, with his companion, walked disconsolately away.
Them’s the breaks in showbiz. I felt zero sympathy for them, no more than I would for a driver who rides the shoulder in heavy traffic and gets stopped by the cops. Abide by the regulations — or stay off the road. You don’t like it? Your right to be selfish or uninformed is being abridged? Here’s a little secret: Everything is not about you. Especially now, at this sensitive juncture, when the overseers of public spaces are trying to build back trust and operate without risk of spreading this insidious, calamitous infection.
I can report that once the rest of us were inside — 25 or so socially distanced in a black box theater that normally seats up to 99 — the evening unfolded exuberantly. It was the first of three live theatrical events I attended over the weekend, the first time in a year my schedule resembled something like the days before covid-19. I wore my mask throughout the shows, a feat that a year ago I had convinced myself would be too uncomfortable to tolerate.
Necessity, it seems, is the mother of devotion.
A year of watching theater online had left me feeling as if I had been forever condemned to crave my favorite brand and had to settle for a knockoff. So being released from virtual captivity and newly free to breathe the fresh (read: ventilated) air of live performance was, well, a blessing. My Pfizer vaccination regimen and the 14-day wait for full immunization to take effect were complete. Seated on the old wretched wooden chairs of off-Broadway and in the narrow rows of Broadway theaters seemingly designed for economy on a budget airline, I felt home again.
The weekend amounted to a preview of the palette of measures being put in place to get theater safely up to speed, in spaces still with severe restrictions on capacity. If my experience is any indication, the process is going to be a challenge for culture vultures. Not impossible, but varied, patience-testing and even a bit stressful. Theaters seem to be evolving their own peculiar systems, with pre-attendance health questionnaires, idiosyncratic ticketing apps, entrance and exit protocols, document checks and seating arrangements. It will take some doing for the industry to get together and make this a user-friendly segue to fully operational.
But these are extremely early days. My experience in the great indoors involved three wildly different productions: Daisey’s discourse on the past year, “What the F--- Just Happened?”; an NYPopsUp performance with Nathan Lane and Savion Glover at Broadway’s St. James Theatre; and the off-Broadway debut at the Daryl Roth Theatre of “Blindness,” a dystopian drama experienced via headphones.
The vaccine seemed to have immunized my English major’s brain from worry. In each of the environments, I felt perfectly safe. Although when ushers at the Daryl Roth told me that the bathrooms were shut and that patrons would have to use a nearby Starbucks, I did have a moment of anxiety that I would need to run for a, er, latte break. Other anxieties: waiting in line on Saturday outside the St. James for a worker to check my credentials — photo I.D., vaccination card, QR-coded ticket — and fumbling with my cellphone as the screen went dark. And, for that matter, trying to remember whether the tickets were in my email or on an app or had been texted to me. Or was that the covid-19 survey that arrived by text?
Mercifully, that momentary panic subsided by the time the lights went down — reliably, in that hallowed tradition of starting six minutes later than the time on the ticket. Daisey’s one-night-only show was an account of a year of living pandemically, recounted entertainingly in his signature countenance of enlightened outrage. Saturday’s event at the St. James was a delightful demonstration of tap artistry by Glover and of flawless comic timing by Lane playing a theater-starved New Yorker as conjured by playwright Paul Rudnick. “Blindness,” which I saw Sunday, is the tale, based on a novel by Jose Saramago, of an epidemic that renders an entire nation blind, except for the narrator.
The seats in the Daryl Roth are arranged in pairs, in a space intermittently enveloped in total darkness. The only actor you hear is through headphones. Juliet Stevenson provides the voice; like the technical elements of the show, her contribution is unassailable. The play, though, lasting a little over an hour, felt wrong for this moment of return. Relentlessly oppressive until a final (and refreshing) moment of illumination, the piece plunged me deeper into a bleakness I had longed to escape. (The play comes to Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company next month.)
I was far more grateful to be at Daisey’s “What the F--- Just Happened?,” which was also live-streamed. Sitting for a spell a couple dozen feet from the stage, listening to a talented storyteller spin a version of a year not entirely unlike the one I had just spent, felt really, really good. At one point, Daisey described a hiatus from his hibernation in his Brooklyn apartment.
“I was really stunned at how good it felt, to be around other people,” he said.
Yes, yes it did.