One might imagine that over the course of seeing thousands of shows (Rule No. 1 of the Critics Club: Never count the shows), the occasion might arise on which a theater seat might free itself of the bonds of engineering and, out of fatigue at bearing so much intellectual weight, simply stop doing its job. This was the infraction that Cushion No. 113 in Row H committed on the recent evening I attended “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” in Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. But it was just another experience to add to my list of horrific catastrophes befalling a person who makes a living sitting in the dark.
Horrific, though, only in the sense that the folks who invite a theater critic (or any arts reviewer) into their establishment tend to have an outsize sense of terror when anything occurs that might detract from the appointed experience. Which is, of course, to have an absolutely joyful (or thunderingly shattering) time, taking in the sidesplitting/harrowing/magisterial/heartbreaking concoction they’ve whipped up for you and the rest of the theatergoing universe. To them, it’s a little like inviting someone to dinner and spilling the soup in their lap. Except that in the theater’s case, the impression the guest takes away may cause longer-lasting indigestion.
Speaking of digestion, and laps: I vividly recall the evening when a young person seated to my right rose in the middle of a scene of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” and, in serious stomach distress, threw up in mine. It’s astonishing how, even with a paycheck on the line, your mind can run through the menu of options and settle on the most obvious one: Rush out and clean yourself off! Which I did, as the staff of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington’s Sidney Harman Hall watched anxiously while I made a mad dash to the men’s room.
And so it goes in a career as a professional member of the audience. There is no award for valorous behavior in the auditorium — although my fast cleanup and return to my seat that night seems in retrospect an act possibly above and beyond the call of reviewing duty. I liked the production, even if I missed a, uh, chunk of it. Which should not be read as a plea for hazard pay — or for anyone else, on a night of theatergoing, to consider showering me with the wrong kind of attention.
Most nights among the thousands — or is it millions? — that I’ve spent in theaters (remember, no counting) do pass eventfully, though those events tend to be confined to the stage. On a smattering of other evenings, I get reminders of another valuable lesson about theatergoing: Expect the unexpected from your fellow humans. And as is appropriate for the theater, represented for millennia by those twin masks of tragedy and comedy, there have been some sad moments up and down the aisles, as well as comic ones. On a night in London years ago, a man near me keeled over in his seat. The production came to a merciful halt, and the ashen, motionless patron was eventually carried out by medics. After a brief interval, the production resumed. The show, after all, must go on.
Modern tradition mandates that theater critics attend a specific performance set aside for press invitations. On and off Broadway, the nights for review are usually a few of the final preview performances, before opening night. As I often explain, opening night is virtually never the production’s first performance; some shows on Broadway run in previews for a month or more before inviting critics. In Washington, owing to the relative brevity of most engagements, the convention varies from company to company, but the “press night” and opening night — a designated evening after only a few previews — often coincide.
Most of the time, the powers that be leave a critic to his or her own devices. But on some rare, misguided occasions, I’m aware of overeager attendees who have somehow managed to secure seats all around me. Guffaws at every punchline and standing ovations that start before the chorus comes on for its curtain call are their tells.
One time, long ago, during a press performance of a dreary Broadway jukebox musical, the guy next to me roared with singular delight and repeatedly jabbed my elbow during the hoary production numbers. Whenever I looked over, he was smiling broadly at me and mouthing words like “Isn’t this fun?” That guy was Soupy Sales. I suspect this wasn’t a chance encounter. (You kids won’t know, but the late Soupy was once a popular television comedian.)
There have been other outrageous moments. One time, a solo performer accosted me during her show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, taking my pad and pen and throwing it across the auditorium. The more mundane distractions of a job that entails opinion-forming in public, you learn to deal with. You know, folks like the man in front of you who’s conducting the score of the musical along with the band leader, or the theater lover who has been seated behind you, with his rhythmically clicking oxygen tank. As I try at all costs to avoid disruption once I’m in my seat, I’ve developed my own survival guide: Always take advantage of a moment before the show to use the restroom (as one gets older, this becomes ever more essential), and never go to the theater hungry — on an empty stomach, a long first act feels positively, infuriatingly endless.
The stranger brand of mishap, though, never gets me down. On the night my seat fell apart, I was amazed at the stir it caused. The idea seemed to be that somehow I would be outraged, when it simply reminded me how fortunate I was, to have a job that got me there in the first place. In the minutes before curtain, an usher ran up the aisle for help, a producer profusely apologized, the house manager rushed over to supervise, and a house handyman turned up to reattach the recalcitrant cushion.
As for the evening’s main event — “Ain’t Too Proud”? Well, what do you know? It was a great sit.