I think I found the answer after the play, as I made my way to the Biltmore's center aisle and waited patiently to leave the theater. It took a long while because there were several people in front of me, many of whom were maneuvering slowly with their canes, crutches, and walkers. This may sound as if I'm mocking them, but I don't mean it that way at all. I was very moved to see that so many people had made such an effort to leave their houses, get to midtown, walk up some stairs, and somehow maneuver through a narrow row before reaching their seats, getting settled, finding a place to put their canes, crutches, and walkers so they could have a comfortable afternoon. All of that can't be easy, yet time after time, season after season, these intrepid souls do it just so they can see a live performance.
Over the years, I've heard many administrators and directors say that "We must get young people into the theater." Yes, we must! (If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone talk about courting youth to become theatergoers, I'd have enough to buy a Spamalot ticket at a scalper's price.) But what I haven't heard too many such people say is how much they appreciate the audiences they have and have had for years. Whenever I attend any theater from sea to shining sea, there's a healthy contingency of old timers, ready and willing if not necessarily able to see a show. Some use binoculars, some use infra-red headsets, but all do whatever it takes to enjoy themselves. Yes, some of them talk aloud, but so do some far younger people. Yes, they open wrapped candies during the performance, but I've seen younger people bring buckets of fried chicken into the theater. (Personally, I prefer the sound of candy being unwrapped to the smell of chicken.)
I remember going to the Roundabout in the 1970s, when it was an Off-Broadway enterprise with one theater that had been converted from an unsuccessful movie house and another small playhouse that was unceremoniously tucked away beneath a supermarket. Each time I'd attend, I was more often than not in the company of oldsters. But those people paid for their tickets, and their continual support resulted in the Roundabout having the resources to become a Broadway presence -- just as Manhattan Theatre Club has done, mostly thanks to its own seasoned patrons.
I'm thinking of a night in 1969 when I'd been given free tickets to Adaptation/Next, the Off-Broadway smash that had a sit-down production in Boston. I called my friend Kate Cullen to tell her that I had seats for this terrific show and they wouldn't cost her a dime. "Yeah, I know," she said, "but once I get home and take off my girdle, I just don't want to go out again." She was all of 26 years old at the time. So I called my cousin Bobby, 22, who also wasn't interested.
Then Bobby's mother, my Aunt Theresa, got on the phone and said, "Would you mind if Uncle Frank and I went?" Truth to tell, I hadn't even thought of offering her the tickets, but I immediately appreciated the fact that this woman -- much older than Kate, mind you -- wasn't deterred by the prospect of her putting on her girdle and going out again. The next day, she called to say what a terrific time she'd had. And I swear, every time I saw her for years thereafter, she'd say: "You know what I really loved seeing? That play about the old guy who gets drafted by mistake."
By the way, I very much liked Absurd Person Singular, although the title is forced and irrelevant. It's interesting that, while each act takes place on a different Christmas Eve, there's not one Yuletide decoration to be seen in the play (because these people aren't in celebratory moods when we meet them). Ayckbourn's work reminded me how we go to great lengths to impress other people and how much pressure hosts and hostesses feel. It also reinforced the fact that the kitchen is the nerve center in our homes, the room in which we may very well feel the most comfortable. But, most of all, the performance of this piece at the Biltmore in front of an attentive and appreciative audience reminded me that theaters owe a great deal to the senior citizens who buy subscriptions way in advance and can't wait to see the plays.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]