The first time was at Trumbo, the worthy effort currently at the Westside. There was Nathan Lane reading Christopher Trumbo's script about his father, the blacklisted novelist and screenwriter. When Lane read a letter that the incarcerated Trumbo had written to his family and added after his signature, "Prisoner 375978," the audience laughed. Later, when Lane told about a terrible experience in a Mexican prison, they laughed again. The more he talked of the humiliating poverty that Trumbo had encountered as a result of his political inclinations, the more they laughed.
Granted, audiences have by now been conditioned that when Lane is on stage, they're going to laugh. And perhaps he wasn't the most logical choice of actor to inaugurate this serious work, which will in time have a series of actors reading it à la Love Letters and The Vagina Monologues. But Lane wasn't doing shtick up there; he seemed intent on giving a serious performance. The crowd just wouldn't allow that he might want to stretch himself. I'm sorry they couldn't rise to the occasion.
A different kind of slight occurred during The Threepenny Opera at Jean Cocteau Repertory. After Chad A. Suitts' soulful rendition of "Mack the Knife," the audience didn't applaud. Granted, director David Fuller didn't give them much time to -- he wanted to move quickly into the first dialogue exchange -- but audience members could have stopped the show with applause if they really wanted to. (Has there ever been a musical theater performer who wouldn't stop talking if he heard even one person start to clap?) It wasn't until Amy Lee Williams sang "Pirate Jenny" -- a good half hour into the show -- that anyone applauded. From then on, it was hit-or-miss, meaning that a number of deserving performers weren't applauded because the crowd was just too damned lazy.
Now you may say, "Oh, yeah, wise guy? Then why didn't you applaud and start the ball rolling?" Frankly, when an audience applauds, that's the time I use to take notes. Many critics do. If we're writing when someone's singing, dancing, or even talking, we might miss something good. Unlike TV critics, who can just roll back their videotapes or DVDs, theater critics know that if they're looking down and writing and they suddenly hear the audience laugh or gasp, they've forever lost the moment. But chances are that little is going to happen during audience applause, which makes it an ideal time to take notes.
The above weren't the first times an audience has disappointed me. I hate it when I see 42nd Street and no one applauds when Julian Marsh declares "musical comedy" to be "the two most glorious words in the English language," but we can't expect everyone to feel that way. However, there's no excuse for what happened on Saturday, August 9, 1975. This was only a few days after health issues had caused Gwen Verdon to temporarily withdraw from Chicago two months into the run. Bob Fosse asked Liza Minnelli to step in and she agreed, but both decided to downplay the move as much as possible: There'd be no billing for Minnelli and no mention of her in the program. Someone unfamiliar with Broadway who'd passed by the 46th Street Theatre would have inferred that Verdon indeed was in the show because her name was still there on the marquee and the posters. The only acknowledgment of the change would happen would be a loudspeaker announcement before curtain: "Ladies and gentlemen, at this performance the role of Roxie Hart will not be played by Gwen Verdon..."
Here's where the audience let me down, for it gave out with a most sarcastic and mock-sorry "Awwwwwwwwwwwww!" that changed to a cheer after the announcer continued with "...but will be played by -- Liza Minnelli!" Yes, Minnelli was at the apex of her career, the perfect age for Roxie, and delivered an astonishing performance. But for an audience to show such disrespect to the four-time Tony-winning legend Verdon was loathsome. As Verdon had said in her previous hit, "Fickle finger of fate."
I agree with Goethe's statement that "There is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they laugh at." I guess I should forgive the audience reaction when I saw A View from the Bridge at the Habimah in Tel Aviv, for their culture is different from ours -- but oh, did they laugh and jeer at Eddie Carbone when he kissed Rodolfo! Yes, Miller intended that Eddie be diminished by that kiss, but not for the reason that the audience was mocking him. Here, the reaction was that any man who kissed a man was less of a man for doing so, that this was the ultimate humiliation.
That reminds me of the four times when I saw The Boys in the Band in Boston in 1969. As moved as I was by the groundbreaking play and the sterling production, I was disappointed at how the men in the audience reacted when gay Michael was defeated by the straight Alan. They gave out with loud, hateful laughter that essentially said, "Yeah, gay boy, what made you think that you could ever emerge triumphant? That'll never happen to someone like you."
And that incident reminds me of Todd's Secret. I can honestly say that, of the 6,000-plus times I've been to the theater, this play -- which I saw in 1994 -- was one of the finest I've ever experienced. It was made all the more remarkable because it was written by a 16-year-old. I caught it at a Young Playwrights Festival sponsored by Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Follow this link and you can read a detailed synopsis, starting with the column's fourth paragraph. But for our purposes here, let me just say that Todd at first seems to be a nice kid we come to care about but then shows himself to be homophobic. I can still hear the sound of the hundreds of high-schoolers in attendance recoil in verbal horror and disappointment at what Todd turned out to be.
Well, I went back to the Star-Ledger, where I cover New Jersey theater, and wrote long and enthusiastically about Todd's Secret. Months later, I named it the season's best play. Subsequently, the good people at Playwrights Theatre decided to offer a special benefit performance of the play for the suits who give big bucks to keep the organization in business. The big night came -- and at the moment when Todd turned out to be viciously homophobic, the audience laughed just the way the Boston audience had done when Michael was defeated in The Boys in the Band. Though I can still hear the high schoolers' original reaction, I can still hear the adults' derision, too. But I've always prided myself on being the type of guy who tries not to see a half-full glass as half-empty, so I'll take consolation in the fact that the younger generation of theatergoers proved to be more sensitive and caring than the generation that's on its way out.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]