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Theater critic

The esteemed Manhattan theater in which I spent several hours on a recent Saturday night might as well have been a dormitory. Up and down the rows and aisles, people could be seen in various states of drowsy repose. A woman in the row ahead of mine had her head thrust all the way back, as if she were paying the audience member behind her to shampoo her hair. A younger man at the opposite end of the row behind me was fighting to stay awake, his droopy head snapping back to upright each time his eyelids became heavy. The woman next to me slept through the entire first act. She opted not to return for the second.

I continually shifted my gaze from the actors droning away in this more than usually dreary piece to observe the more entertaining tableaux their customers were creating. A young woman cuddled with her seatmate, lapsing blissfully into dreamland. An older gentleman sat ramrod straight, his eyes gently closed: He could have been the model for a bust titled “Eternal Rest.”

My habit, born of a career-related curiosity in how people around me are reacting to the art we are jointly experiencing, is to look left and right and momentarily study the faces of those who have yielded to the possibly involuntary temptations of mind and body, and have turned off their interior lights. It's certainly not the most reliable barometer of receptivity to a production's charms, or lack thereof: I cannot count the number of occasions on which I've watched a playgoer sleep through a show — and then instantly stand at the curtain call to lead the rest of the audience in a rousing ovation.

It is every patron's right, I suppose, to consume theater in any way they see fit, as long as it is not a nuisance to others. The steady mechanical breath of sleep can be an audible distraction at a quiet play, and yes, a throat clearing or a whispered word of correction is required if snoring commences. But the greater injustice, it seems to me, is the one unconscious theatergoers do to themselves. Buying a $100 seat is an inordinately expensive way to take a nap.

Is every theater piece really that dull to some percentage of the crowd, I wonder, or are we just coming to public events ever more sleep-deprived? Plays old or new with long monologues (like the one last Saturday) tend to be the most in danger of producing narcotizing effects — and actors who have trouble with accents or garble their lines can quickly exhaust one’s ears — but I’ve also known a musical or two to act as a sedative.

I've participated in enough public panel discussions (yawn, excuse me!) to notice that some spectators nod off  the minute the conversation begins — the way subjects on daytime television fall into trances the instant the hypnotist snaps his finger. I understand that talking heads arrayed in semicircles and responding to questions such as, “What do you make of National Endowment for the Arts statistics showing performing arts attendance declining . . .? " might not fire up the circuits with the jolt of a triple espresso. But to fall asleep before the proceedings even get a crack at boring you? Why, for heaven’s sake, have you bothered to come?

Perhaps even more to the point: Do people attending plays and musicals have a moral obligation to the performers to try to stay awake? Would earlier curtain times offer some mitigation of crowd fatigue? I recently talked about the impact of audience snoozing with a highly regarded director of contemporary and classical plays, and what he told me shed light on how even one sleeper can take the air out of a performance. Sometimes, he said, actors can lose their edge at the sight of dozing spectators. (Many times, I’ve seen people in seats in the front row hunched over in slumber.) When the actors exit the stage, the idea can be conveyed to other members of the cast waiting to go on that, well, tonight is just not a good house. And being human, the cast, the director said, might perceptibly deflate, maybe even pull back a tad on the reins of their performances. 

The sandman, it seems, works in nefarious ways.

This obviously varies from actor to actor and production to production — you need veterans in a cast, the director averred, who aren’t thrown off by such irritants. His advice to his casts, he added, is to never give up on the audience, in part because a play or musical has its own up-and-down energy cycles. The period immediately after the major characters have been brought on, and the plot and the themes of the evening set in motion, might be one, for example, in which an audience settles in and takes a mental timeout. That doesn’t mean they’ll remain less engaged. The opportunity almost always exists, he said, for the engine of the play to rev up again, and playwright and performers to reassert their power. 

In sitting through 120 or more performances a year, I’ve noticed this tendency to go psychically away and come back even in myself — and it rarely has anything to do with how much, or how little, sleep I got the night before. Sometimes the sense of an impending slip into unconsciousness can feel out of one’s control, and so you have to develop techniques for staying awake, especially for occasions on which a production seems determined to sing you a figurative lullaby.

The fear of losing one’s job, for instance, proves to be an amazingly effective stimulant.

On this particular Saturday, though, I could sense that for a goodly portion of the audience, no external source of forcing focus was going to help. Many left at intermission. Among those who stayed were some who did seem to maintain their interest — and others who treated themselves to 40 winks. Departed patrons, or sleeping ones? Later that night, reflecting on which group more deeply affected the actors trying to get on with their jobs, was something that kept me awake.