Friday, February 18, 2005

REV: NYT review of theatre intermissions!

The Show Between Acts
The New York Times, February 18, 2005

If I were a David Mamet character, I might have reacted more creatively, or at least more emphatically, something like: "Are you telling me that ... what I think I hear you telling me is that ... am I being made to understand that there is no alcohol served at this place?"

But the other night at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea, during the intermission for Mr. Mamet's new play, "Romance," I responded with much less flair when told that coffee, tea, soda and water were the only beverages available while one stretched one's legs between acts.

"Really?" I said, visions of a pilsner dancing in my head. "Um ... O.K."

My interest was partly recreational but mostly professional: I was near the end of a few weeks of drinking, eating, chatting, standing, gawking, eavesdropping and bathroom-waiting my way through a survey of the state of intermissions in New York theater. The tour, fairly random and thoroughly unscientific, took me from the elegant and easeful (two intermissions, one 40 minutes long, during "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera) to the middling (bad red wine and strange fashions in a pretty lounge at the Music Box Theater on West 45th Street) to the merely puzzling (a prominent sign announcing the official Champagne of the Classic Stage Company near Union Square, but no Champagne anywhere in sight).

In between, several general rules of intermissions were deduced:
Twizzlers (licorice) and Dots (like gumdrops) seem to be the two candies that concessions tables cannot be without, bringing a strange, sugary movie-house feel to the grown-up theater experience.

Bigger theaters never seem to have enough bathroom space. The wait for the five urinals in the bathroom on my side of the Metropolitan Opera House during the first intermission of "Turandot" was more than four minutes, and the lines for the women's room looked even longer.

The quality of the wine tends to be bad everywhere, though the $15 plastic flute of Moët & Chandon at the Met - while expensive - was just as good as, or better than, the kind of bubbly the same amount of money will get you at many restaurants. (Meanwhile, at the Music Box Theater, the Livingston Cellars red was $5 for a modest plastic glass. The quality? A hint: in some stores you can buy a three-liter bottle of it for not much more than $5.)

The level of conversation does not tend to rise with the level of the performance. At the "Turandot" intermission, I caught one high-society conversation in which a man talked about planning his son's bar mitzvah in Athens. But a more representative snippet of chatter, overheard in the line for the bar, went like this:

"Is she a good cook?" one man asked.

"Well, she keeps it simple," his friend answered. "You know - meat, vegetable, salad, bread." He paused. "Eggs, bacon, toast." He laughed.

The first man nodded appreciatively. "Nice," he said.

Intermission-hopping was an odd reversal of the theatergoing experience. Instead of viewing the break as a diversion from the main attraction, I bought my ticket solely for the show that begins when the curtain goes down, the lights go back up and theatergoers join in that typically rushed and crowded communal mini-cocktail party that nearly always promises to be more enjoyable than it turns out to be. In part, the problem is that intermissions have become so squeezed at many Broadway theaters, where two acts and one intermission long ago replaced the three acts and two intermissions that were standard in the 1930's and 40's in the plays of Noël Coward and Kaufman and Hart. And the one intermission that now remains can seem like a reality-show time trial, in which ordering hot coffee is always a bad idea (you might get a sip or two before the lights start blinking) and those who have to duck outside to smoke need to smoke fast.

Confusion at the Counter
At the Classic Stage Company theater on East 13th Street, the intermission for the new production of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" was supposed to be 10 minutes, but it clocked in at just a little more than 8 and the two people working behind the concessions counter were not exactly prepared to work at pit-crew speed. In fact, they sometimes seemed confused about people wanting to buy things, and positively Beckett-like exchanges followed.

For example:
A man bought a cup of coffee and put his dollar bill on the counter. "Milk?" he asked.

"That'll be a dollar," the woman behind the counter said.

Confused, he said: "Milk?"

"It's a dollar," she said. Pause.

"Oh yes, milk is ... oh, milk, yes," she finally replied and opened a carton of milk, though an already-opened carton was sitting on the other end of the bar.

Another theater employee nearby pleaded for small bills when a theatergoer tried to pay with a 20, saying the theater would run out of change, though few people were buying anything. "Small-time operation we got going here," she said.

A Tradition in Transition
Of course, not everyone loves a nice, leisurely intermission. Strindberg was said to hate intermissions altogether, feeling they destroyed the illusionary world his plays were building. In interviews, Horton Foote has agreed. Classical Greek tragedy did not have them, nor did Shakespeare. But this was mostly because audiences of Elizabethan and, later, Restoration theater often did the things modern audiences do during intermission - eating, drinking, talking, relieving themselves - while the play or plays were under way. At Covent Garden theaters in London in the 17th century, so-called orange girls peddled fruit, other food and sometimes themselves in the middle of performances. (One, Nell Gwyn, became famous as a mistress of Charles II.)

"The notion that you have to be serious and stop your eating and drinking during the show is a pretty 20th-century invention," said Laurence Maslon, an associate arts professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "There was not the kind of formal break between things we have now."

But Professor Maslon noted that the tradition of an intermission has been whittled down in American theater until it has often become little more than a formality - in contrast to London theater, where intermissions (or intervals, as they are called there) are still more leisurely. He used the example of the scene in Mel Brooks's film "The Producers," in which Max Bialystock and Leopold Bloom repair to a bar to await the imminent collapse of their musical, "Springtime for Hitler," and are shocked to see theatergoers streaming in during intermission who are singing its praises as they order their drinks.

"Who has time to go to a bar anymore during intermission?" Professor Maslon asked. "Or even step outside?"

A Production in Itself
Not many, except in the opera, where elaborate set changes - as in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production of "Turandot" - can make for intermissions as long as some Off Broadway plays. The night I went, the time was well spent, except for enduring the bathroom line. Champagne was enjoyed. Walter Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, were spotted. Furs were assessed, along with some fashions that seemed tacky while probably costing lots of money. Multicolored moon boots that looked as if they had been painted by Jackson Pollock? Zebra-patterned pumps? A kind of Gothic dress with sleeves that looped up between the wearer's fingers?

At the Met, intermission can be enjoyed at bars on four levels, and for those who are into serious intermission luxury, reservations can even be made at the Grand Tier Restaurant, where full meals are ordered ahead of time and engineered so that diners can eat their foie gras, lamb and lobster in two sittings at intermission.

A colleague and I decided to go for less ambitious fare and during the second intermission headed down to the ground-floor bar, where not-so-good brownies and very strong coffee were for sale. Strangely, there were also options to buy several kinds of international-themed spiked coffees. Irish coffee I understood. But what exactly were Jamaican coffee and Mexican coffee?

And while on the topic of drinks, does anyone want to be seen sipping an Orangina at the opera?
The décor on the ground floor was more than worth the trip, however: oil portraits of Met greats like Leontyne Price and Ezio Pinza, along with vintage Met costumes and, once again, the woman with the moon boots.

Beer, Popcorn, Dogs?
My next stop, the Zipper Theater on West 37th Street, where the musical "Under the Bridge" is playing, provided much less luxury but a nice contrast and a little history of its own. A onetime zipper warehouse in the Garment District, it has been converted with appropriate industrial-chic touches, like old car seats instead of theater seats and a bar that looks like a respectable old dive, with a neon beer sign and - yes - Jever pilsner on tap. (In most other theaters I visited, the beer choices were usually limited to bottles of Heineken and Amstel Light.)

The best feature of the Zipper, especially for those who were not crazy about the production (book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford), was that you are allowed to carry your mugs of beer and glasses of wine - real glass, not plastic - back to your seat after intermission, a kind of nod back to the rollicking ethos of 17th-century English theater.

That kind of permissiveness seems to be catching on a little more as theaters try harder to make their patrons happy, while still keeping intermissions brief. At "Movin' Out," the Billy Joel musical at the Richard Rodgers Theater, you can take popcorn back to your seat, for example.

At the Duffy Theater, at 46th and Broadway, which houses the oddball long-running mystery play "Perfect Crime," you can take anything back to your seat. There is even a sign behind the bar saying "We {sheart} Dogs," though it is not quite clear whether that means your dog would be welcome beside you at a performance. (Last Wednesday there would have been room; the audience was composed of 14 people, only three of whom bothered to get up during intermission.)

The Atlantic Adapts
Even the Atlantic Theater Company, where I found no alcohol and where intermissions have long been treated as a kind of annoyance, is trying harder now to observe the conventions. The company, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy and located since 1993 in a former church parish house on West 20th Street, has always had a kind of bare-bones, theater-as-religion feel to it.

Andrew Hamingson, the theater's new managing director, said that the intermission concessions had long been run by acting students. "Students being students, sometimes they'd be there and sometimes they wouldn't," he said. In fact, he said, during a production of two Ionesco plays last year, the only convenience available at intermission was a water cooler.

But the theater recently brought in a professional concessionaire and expects to have a beer and wine license soon, joining the crowd. Mr. Hamingson said that an owner of the concessions company had asked him what types of productions were coming up. When he told her that the Mamet play was a farce, he said, she was quite happy to hear it.

"For some reason, apparently, people drink more during intermissions of comedies - who knows why?" he said. "Oh, the things you learn in the theater business."

The theaters and opera house in the article on intermissions:
ATLANTIC THEATER, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea, (212) 239-6200. David Mamet's "Romance." Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Through April 17. Tickets, $55.

CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY, 136 East 13th Street, East Village, (212) 279-4200. Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," by the Worth Street Theater Company. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Through March 13. Tickets, $45 to $50.

DUFFY THEATER, 1553 Broadway, at 46th Street, (212) 695-3401. "Perfect Crime." Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets, $40.

METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE, Lincoln Center, (212) 362-6000. This weekend: tonight at 8, "Le Nozze di Figaro"; tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., "La Bohème"; tomorrow night at 8, "Nabucco." Tickets, $35 to $215. Performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon are sold out, but returned tickets may be available. Standing room tickets, $15 and $20.

MUSIC BOX THEATER, 239 West 45th Street, (212) 239-6200. "Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!" Performances Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Through June 4. Tickets, $67.50 to $87.50.

RICHARD RODGERS THEATER, 226 West 46th Street, (212) 307-4100. "Movin' Out." Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets, $40 to $100.

ZIPPER THEATER, 336 West 37th Street, (212) 563-0480. "Under the Bridge." Through Sunday. Performances tonight at 7; tomorrow at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets, $55.


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