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Intermission Talk

Filichia tips his hat to shows that forgo intermission and considers why others require the break.

By New York City

The cast of A Chorus Line waves goodbye to intermission
The cast of A Chorus Line waves goodbye to intermission
So, how do we feel about intermissions? I thought about this after I saw a matinee of David Mamet's Boston Marriage at the Public Theater and an evening performance of How I Learned to Drive at the Women's Theater Company in Morris Township, New Jersey. The former play had an intermission, which gave a few theatergoers the opportunity to take their leave -- which they did. Then in the second act, the play needed time for some intricate costume changes; so we had a semi-intermission, during which the house lights were raised only to half. A few more people bolted then. (Too bad: Those of us who stayed obviously appreciated how much David Mamet stretched himself in this turn-of-the-century comedy, and how dazzling all three actresses -- the well-known Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton, and the only temporarily lesser-known Arden Myrin -- played their roles.)

How I Learned to Drive had, as usual, no intermission. I doubt that people would have left anyway, because this was a fine production of Paula Vogel's very good play. But intermissions do give people the chance to leave unobtrusively. Those of us who are watching a play and are really into it prefer that people who aren't as engaged leave at that official lull in the action rather than get up, say "Excuse me," and bother us and our legs on their way out.

Some shows lend themselves to intermissions. The curtain has to come down after Rose sings "Everything's Coming Up Roses," not just because it's such a dramatic moment but also because we all need 15 minutes to say to our companions, "Wow! Can you believe what you've just seen and heard?!" And some shows do not lend themselves to intermissions -- such as A Chorus Line, which wants to put us through a non-stop audition, and Grand Hotel, where the theme is "Life goes on," so let's go on with the show.

Sometimes, intermissions are needed because the tech crew requires plenty of time to make a major set change. Corey and Paul's dull apartment in Barefoot in the Park becomes a charming one; Oscar's filthy sty in The Odd Couple becomes Felixized into a hygienic home. Then there's the best of all, in Shirley Valentine. It starts out in a kitchen where we meet Shirley, an unhappy and certainly unliberated housewife who's encouraged by her new female friend to take a madcap trip to Greece. Shirley makes it clear that she'd like to go -- and will do so without talking to her husband about it. Still, we're not certain that she's going to make it as the first act curtain falls. That's why, when the second act curtain rises and we see Shirley sitting on a big rock on a Greek beach, we go "Ooooooh!" and burst into applause. It's not just that, in an era of so many one-set plays, we're given a new set; we get a new Shirley, too. Bless the intermission for letting it happen.

On the other hand, Noises Off was originally in three acts, so that the set in the first act could spin around and show us its backside for Act Two before changing back again for Act Three. But in last season's revival, Michael Frayn wrote a new piece to be said in front of the curtain while the set was changed from behind. Why? Because asking people to deal with two intermissions is a thing of the past. Hard to believe, isn't it, that for first part of the 20th century, plays routinely had two intermissions? I don't know how people endured them in those days -- especially considering that shows started a half-hour later, at 8:30pm. This means that, on average, people got out of shows 45 minutes later than they do now.

Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher, and Edward Hibbert in Noises Off, whichoriginally required two intermissions(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher, and
Edward Hibbert in Noises Off, which
originally required two intermissions
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Intermissions were slightly shorter then, for it wasn't until 1964 that theaters got the right and the licenses to serve liquor, rather than just orange juice and chocolate-covered cherries. As a result, intermissions got longer. So did something else. "Since bar service was introduced, each of our second act laughs has been a few seconds longer," said Beatrice Lillie, who was then starring in the appropriately named High Spirits.

Nowadays, a 20-minute intermission isn't out of the question, possibly because there's so much more to sell than there used to be. Concessions are a quick and easy way for a theater to make some serious extra bucks, which is why I've experienced intermissioned productions of Grand Hotel and A Chorus Line in the hinterlands. I'll bet there are theatergoers who are glad to have them; Lord knows that a good percentage of them are older people whose need for restrooms increases exponentially as they age. And though smoking has decreased significantly among theatergoers, there are still those who need those 15 minutes to rush out into the streets to have a cigarette -- which, some will say, is a good reason why there shouldn't be intermissions.

Press agent extraordinaire Sam Rudy has told me, "Oh, you critics just look so happy when we tell you there's no intermission. You love getting home 15 minutes earlier." That's right: 15 minutes more to decompress at home. 15 minutes more sleep. Maybe that's one reason why I loved The Goat, Metamorphoses, and Say Goodnight Gracie. On the other hand, if there were no such thing as intermissions, we wouldn't have the marvelous "Intermission Talk" song that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for Me and Juliet. It's easily the best thing in the show.

Anyway, I'd love to hear what and how you feel about intermissions. Like them? Hate them? Would you rather they be more plentiful, both in length and frequency? Or are you glad to be out in the night air before 10pm? You know where to find me.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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