Wide Angle

Joan Allen’s Internet Went Out, but the Show Must Go On

What I learned about making art in weird times by watching the original Broadway cast of The Heidi Chronicles stumble through the show on Zoom.

Five cast members of The Heidi Chronicles on video chat.
Dan Kois

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On Wednesday I settled down in my basement just before 2 p.m., opened the YouTube app on my smart TV for the first time ever, and watched a play. Really, what I watched was a table read of a play. Really, it wasn’t even that. It was a Zoom read, conducted by videoconference, of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, performed by the entire original Broadway cast, including Joan Allen, Boyd Gaines, Peter Friedman, and Cynthia Nixon. Each actor was in their own home or wherever they were sheltering in place, scripts in hand, ready to tackle roles they last performed when the play closed in 1990, after a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning run.

The performance was an experiment of sorts, part of a series called Stars in the House, run by the Actors Fund, an organization that supports performing arts professionals during hard times. These are hard times indeed for people who love to put on a show. Each day, the SiriusXM hosts and theater gadflies Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley have been interviewing Broadway luminaries like Kelli O’Hara and Audra McDonald, and asking viewers to contribute to the fund. On Wednesday, they took their first stab at producing an actual online show—albeit one that featured only a handful of actors, in their houses, reading a play out loud.

Much to my surprise, it worked. The lighting was bad, the set design was worse, and, despite the efforts of a game production team behind the scenes bringing actors “onstage” and “off-” by adding and removing them from the videoconference screen, technical snafus were rampant. I was worried at first that these actors, good as they were, wouldn’t be able to overcome the stiltedness of a video call—that it would remain an exercise. And early scenes did sometimes suffer from the semiconnected, everyone-just-a-half-second-behind-everyone-else nature of communication we’re all getting used to these days, including during an early scene set at a women’s consciousness-raising group. (That’s the photo above.) There were just too many heads and too many voices and too many pauses for the scene ever to attain any kind of dramatic rhythm. (The writer Tyler Coates, who was also watching, did correctly observe on Twitter that “this is exactly what a consciousness raising group would be like on Zoom.”)

But during the final scene of Act I, as Allen (playing Heidi, that avatar of neurotic, ambitious boomer women) argued with the cocky magazine publisher whom she never got around to marrying, played by Peter Friedman—Allen’s actual ex-husband, I found out just then!—I found myself rapt, watching two intuitive actors adapt to their medium. In this scene, the tiny moment it took each person to truly hear the other elevated a scene of recrimination and regret, and seeing Allen and Friedman seize upon that oddness as if it were any other actor’s tool was remarkable and energizing. So it was a real shame that right in the middle of that scene, Allen’s image froze and then she disappeared, leaving Friedman alone on the screen.

He laughed. “I guess I could do a dance or something,” he wisecracked. “Here’s where you see the difference between a performer and an actor.” Rudetsky called him on the telephone and asked him questions about working with Wasserstein, about appearing in Ragtime, about what will happen in the next season of Succession. (Friedman plays Frank Vernon.) Allen returned a few minutes later, apologizing—“my internet went out”—and then she and Friedman good-naturedly talked past each other about which page they would start on, page 46 or page 48. (“I think our pagination is different,” Friedman finally realized.) And then they picked right back up where they left off.

This is the kind of culture story that feels the most irrelevant these days, because it’s not about COVID-19, really; it’s not about music you can listen to or a TV show you can watch late at night. You can’t watch this performance of The Heidi Chronicles; unlike most of the Actors Fund Stars in the House episodes, this livestream was not recorded and archived, presumably for reasons having to do with securing the rights to perform the play in the first place. Even before the coronavirus, a “review” of a one-time-only theatrical experience was the exact kind of story at which I, as an editor, rolled my eyes. What good does this do anyone?

But of course a lot of art has always been like this. For most of recorded history, art was unreproducible, time- and space-limited. Art was a one-time-only experience for those lucky enough to be in the parlor, the concert hall, or the art exhibition. In the 21st century, more people see a quality reproduction of the Mona Lisa every day, it’s safe to say, than were able to observe the painting in the first 200 years of its existence. And to have this odd experience, a kind of echo of the way art used to be—to watch Joan Allen fiddle with her hair in just the way she remembered doing it on Broadway, to hear actors exultantly sing together despite the way videoconferencing screws up unison, to weep through Boyd Gaines’ final scene with Allen, one of the most simply moving conversations in contemporary theater, even as I knew they were far away from each other—and to know that only about a thousand other people would ever see these moments, and that after this they would be lost forever, was sad, but it was also comforting.

Even amid death and fear, art is still being made. Beauty is still flowering in the rocky ground of this pandemic. Yes, by famous artists doing their best under difficult circumstances, but also in ways most of us will never know about. Paintings made while the kids are napping. Cello concerts on porches. Embroidering while watching Tiger King. I’ve been wary of seeking out ad hoc livestreamed art in the time of the coronavirus up till now, but I won’t be anymore. (On Saturday, the Actors Fund will present a live-read of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife with Charles Busch, Andrea Martin, and Richard Kind. I bet it will be good!) And I’ve felt too fatigued to make art of my own, too worried about how I could ever imagine something that feels even slightly relevant, but that’s changed too. It doesn’t matter if I don’t write King Lear; what matters is that I keep making something. I just assembled a group of co-workers to read a play together over Zoom next week. I hope you, the person who reads this culture story that isn’t about the coronavirus but actually is, do too. Joan Allen’s internet went out, but the show went on. I think that remains true for all of us, even now.