Bad Behavior at the Theater: Reviving an Old Tradition

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noises-offSitting quietly and immobile this evening as I watched (endured? felt sympathy for?) Manhattan Theatre Club’s rather wan revival of Accent on Youth, the sound of crinkle-crinkle-crinkle catapulted from the rear of the house toward the front like a gust of wind. Everyone turned around — it was someone off to the right, deep in the dark bowels of the rear of the orchestra. We all, I suppose, tried to scan everyone’s faces but, I swear, they were all staring at the stage, where my eyes had been not a moment before. Not only is he or she unwrapping a candy or a lozenge or, I hope, a portable bit of cyanide, but he or she isn’t even aware of how annoying that sound is. Enraptured by 33 Variations, okay, all right, well, maybe. But not this play, which originally opened on Christmas night, 1934, and has scarcely been missed since then.

I did see an usher, by the way, approach someone in the dim recesses of such seriocomic rapture as I began to turn my head back toward the stage. I could hear said usher admonish said idiot to cease the unwrapping of his or her candy, which made me feel especially good about the head-turn so many of us delivered to the fool. Also, a thought occurred to me: How on earthdoes it take 90 seconds to unwrap a sweet? Is it the size of a honeydew? Or maybe it’s not a sweet — maybe it was present from Saks or Bloomingdales. I also think of opening my birthday gifts just as the action rises to a climax. Or maybe it was the chicken being unwrapped from tin foil — last night’s dinner serving as an Act II snack. Or maybe the patron in question was all set to install their new pacemaker or hearing assistant, or reset their oxygen tank or test out their defibrillator. It couldn’t, in the end, just be a tiny bit of gum.

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Not that this story is new, mind you. The night before, at Waiting for Godot, this nicely dressed elderly man across from me and a row closer to the stage, on the aisle, simply could not figure out how to get his infrared hearing device to operate. So the curtain rose and as I watched Nathan Lane massage his foot, I heard the most ghastly sounds of feedback and fuzz and static. Most of the folks around me that it was a sound effect. You had the distinct sense that the representatives of the Beckett estate in the back of the house were ready to issue a cease-and-desist for having failed to observe the last letter of the master’s stage directions. The elderly man’s wife, equally decked out yet able to hear, seemed oblivious to the concert of aural snow commencing just beside her. No usher this time — apparently it takes a candy unwrapper to bring those folks forth. And so for 25 minutes or so, on and off, the sound of no silence played on and on against the play.

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Something has occurred to me: the issue is not so much bad behavior at the theatre as it is a kind of regression back to the way audiences used to be. More and more, I think we’re returning to an era that is more like those of the well known groundlings, the trailer trash of Shakespeare’s day, or to the later times when ladies of the evening strolled up and down the upper galleries while tragedians regaled society folk. And then there’s the old but famous tradition of hissing villains and cheering heroes and that sort of thing. True, sophisticated theatergoers know how to sit quietly and watch the play. And I do wish everyone knew how to do that. But they don’t and even if we yell at them or try to quietly instruct them, they’re going to do as they wish anyway. In this sense, theater is more egalitarian than ever. It means that we’re going to find all kinds, all the time.

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So I was amused to read Denver critic John Moore’s complaint against the uncouthery of contemporary audiences in this piece that he penned for the Denver Post. Of course, Moore includes actors, too — he cites Patrick Stewart giving one photo-taking imbecile a dressing down from the stage, and Richard Griffiths admonishing another audience-cretin like Pol Pot on a tear. But mostly, in the end, he’s down the audience: those that speak back to the stage in the middle of a performance, unable to discern the difference between live acting and that of the Boob Tube; those that prattle on their cell phones while actors are attempting to earn their wages. Here’s the best part of Moore’s piece:

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In Minneapolis, Denver native John Carroll Lynch made the local paper last year for stopping his performance as Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge. During an intense scene, a man in the second row who had been repeatedly disruptive blurted something out loud.

Lynch, as imposing in physical presence as he is genial in real life, broke character. He walked down to the man and said, “I’m very sorry, but you are going to have to be quiet so the show can continue.” Jaws dropped, then hands exploded in applause.

My question is why was it Lynch’s job to silence this buffoon?

As the economy has tanked, theater staff seem far less aggressive in admonishing bad behavior themselves. Kick out a paying customer, and you’re kicking out any chance of repeat business. It makes me miss the good old days when New York theaters were so smug, they passed a law making cellphone ringing a $50 offense.

And how many of those tickets have been given out? I’ve railed about this before — the no-cell-phone law that passed a few years ago (overriding a veto from Mayor Bloomberg) has no teeth. Or, to quote the mayor, who was right about this then and is right about this today, it has no enforcement provision. I know I focused at the top of this piece about the noisy unwrapping of some Sasquatch-sized sweet. I can’t even tell you about the people on the cell phones. Just a moment or two to think about it makes me want to behave badly. It’s not a performance I relish giving.

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