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Here's to Quality Plus Quantity

Remember the days of the theatrical double, triple, and quadruple bill? Filichia does!

By New York City
Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco in 'night, Mother;Adam Rothenberg and Rosemarie DeWitt inDanny and the Deep Blue Sea(Photos © Joan Marcus)
Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco in 'night, Mother;
Adam Rothenberg and Rosemarie DeWitt in
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
(Photos © Joan Marcus)
Saw four great actors do splendid work in two-plus hours of riveting theater; the only problem was that it took two nights to see them. First came Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn in 'night, Mother. I saw the original production and the movie, so I knew how Marsha Norman's script was going to end -- and yet, once Jessie locked that door behind her, my heart was thumping like a bass drummer on speed.

Then came Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Rothenberg in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. They play Roberta and Danny, who meet in a cheap bar. Each has been deeply disappointed by life, which has put a chip on her shoulder and a two-by-four on his. But just as we think that people who feel they don't need people are the unluckiest people in the world, playwright John Patrick Shanley shows how Roberta and Danny are more sensitive than they want to admit. After they fight, each of them drops his/her guard to imagine the seductive lure of a wedding day. Ah, what we say to one-night stands in the middle of the night -- and how differently we talk in the morning!

Both plays are intermissionless; Mother is about 90 minutes in length, Danny about 70. Good tickets to these two shows would set a theatergoer back more than $150 (at $86.25 for Mother and $65 for Danny). In fact, there's a sign at Mother that trumpets $176.25 "premium seats," so if you play your (credit) cards wrong, you can end up paying more than $230 for 160 minutes of entertainment. Excuse me, but whatever happened to the ol' double bill? Or the triple or quadruple bill? There was a time when an evening in the theater ran almost as long as these two shows put together -- a time when there seemed to be a feeling that a theatergoer was entitled to a certain amount of entertainment for his money. Back in 1948, the Cort hosted The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Respectful Prostitute. Now, I'll admit that the marquee must have provoked a raised eyebrow or two as more than one theatergoer assumed that what made the journey to Trenton and Camden happy was the prostitute. The point is that management was really interested in producing the second play, by Jean Paul Sartre, but worried that it wouldn't be enough for a full evening; so they chose to mount the Thornton Wilder piece as a "curtain raiser," which was what a one-act opener was called in those days. Today, the one-act play that raises the curtain is the one that also lowers it.

Quite a difference from the days when Robert Anderson gave us four one-act plays under the umbrella title You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967), or when Neil Simon offered three-one acts in Plaza Suite (1968) and four in California Suite (1976). In fact, Plaza Suite also originally contained four plays, but they scored so many laughs that the program was running too long, so the first play was discarded. (At least for a while; Neil Simon later expanded it into a screenplay that has since been filmed twice as The Out-of-Towners.) And don't forget Morning, Noon, and Night (1968), three one-acts by three then up-and-coming playwrights: Israel Horovitz (Morning), Terrence McNally (Noon), and Leonard Melfi (Night). That may not sound like a Broadway show, but it was -- though, Lord knows, the multiple-bill was an Off-Broadway fixture way back when, often with felicitous results. Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was paired with Edward Albee's The Zoo Story in 1960, and that production lasted well into 1961. Harold Pinter's The Dumbwaiter and The Collection opened together in 1962 and lasted into 1964. Douglas Turner Ward's Happy Ending and Day of Absence amassed more that 500 performances starting in 1965, and Jean-Claude van Itallie's America Hurrah -- a program of three one act plays -- racked up more than 600 starting in 1966.

There may be no better example of the law of diminishing theatrical returns than Noël Coward's Tonight at 8:30. When the show opened on Broadway in 1936, it was three separate evenings of three-one acts, running in repertory. That's nine plays in total! In 1948, the show was revived on Broadway, kinda, but now it was two evenings of three one-acts played in rep. And when Tonight at 8:30 was revived in 1967, it was one evening of three one-acts -- not played in rep, natch. Granted, some years back, Falsettos gave theatergoers a lot for their money, in terms of both quality and quantity: Though March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were done as one-acters Off-Broadway, they were conjoined to become a full evening of entertainment on Broadway. Whether it's right or whether it's wrong, some theatergoers do factor in how long a show is and pro-rate the minutes they've seen by the cost -- and who can blame them, with the price of tickets so high these days? Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and 'night, Mother cost almost a dollar a minute. And I'm sure that some people exit the theater after these shows are over, look at their watches and then at each other, and say, "Now what?"

On the other hand, maybe they're sorry/grateful; some audience members must be happy to get out early and get home in time for the 11pm news. I'm always astonished when I consider that many moons ago, theatergoers went to weeknight performances that started at 8:30pm, which meant that they didn't hit the night air until 11pm or later -- which explains that old expression, "the 11 o'clock number," a reference to a song that now comes a good half-hour earlier. Still, I'm sure that every ticket-buyer who's glad to make it an early night would prefer that prices be lower. When I was a child, I hated opening a new box of Cheez-Its to find it three-quarters filled -- even when my mother pointed out the disclaimer on the side of the box, which noted that "Contents are measured by weight, not by volume." No matter how weighty the one-act play, don't most theatergoers want more in volume?

Maybe not. We hear that people's attention spans are shorter these days, and perhaps that's why this type of one-act evening has proliferated. Perhaps people don't want to come back after an intermission and have to get to know a whole new set of characters, situations, and complications -- and if they don't want to do it a second time, they certainly don't want to do it a third time after a second intermission. Hey, Hollywood used to offer double features, but those were history by the '60s. Is this less-for-your-money gambit just another example of Broadway's taking a while longer to learn what Hollywood learned long before -- that people just don't want to sit in a theater that long? Or is it, as these things almost always are, a bottom-line decision? Management must be happy that they never have to worry about a show running into overtime, no matter how long an audience laughs at any of the jokes (not that either 'night, Mother or Danny and the Deep Blue Sea have that many).

By the way, after I saw Mother and Danny, I then went on successive nights to see Eve Ensler's The Good Body and Whoopi Goldberg's Whoopi. They too aren't full evenings, but the former has an $80 top ticket price while the latter sells tix for $75 and $45 (and $25 for student rush). Still, as terrific as these two women are, what a double-bill they'd make!

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


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