The New York Times critic was there tonight. Even though his review doesn’t appear until Monday, it’s pretty much all over, and the weekend’s shows can be played with the knowledge that the horse has left the barn. Sad to say, the Times is the only review that really counts. If he likes it, the play will be a hit. If he doesn’t, it will have to fight for its life. This isn’t the case with the theme-park musicals that currently rule the landscape of Broadway. They survive no matter what the New York Times says. But a serious work needs to be anointed by the Times to succeed. There is no exception to the rule. So relax, everybody. Nothing we can do about it now. The deed is done. Sure. Just try to relax until Monday. The panic may be over, but the demon reputation will haunt us as Monday morning grinds slowly toward us. I liked the old days, when the critics came opening night and delivered the coup de grâce quickly the next morning. No waiting. Off with their heads. This new method is a product of producers’ caving to pressure from powerful media interests. The fiction goes that, with the present system, we theater folk will have an opening night free from the tensions of the press. That’s like throwing a nice party for the Christians in the basement of the Coliseum. We know what’s coming.
An eventful night. A large off-stage crash during the first act. I’m not even going to ask. A man with a crazy laugh who laughed at inappropriate times. During the second act, this same man, clearly drunk, began to sob audibly. He struck the man sitting next to him who was trying to hush him. The head usher removed him, and he was arrested outside the theater. The man who was struck was brought outside to press charges. But he was so involved in the play that he kept running back into the theater to watch, banging the entrance door repeatedly. I wanted to have him arrested. The drunken man was taken away in handcuffs. An odd, rather chilling event. The stage action that seemed to have precipitated the man’s breakdown was the drunken, dying figure of James Tyrone crying out in an agony of shame and guilt. And the poor man lurching up the aisle with the usher seemed suddenly to be the mad, restless ghost of James himself, haunting his beloved Broadway. You can never find peace, he seemed to be saying. Never find it.
So if you ask me how the play was tonight, I’ll tell you what I told the actors: “Couldn’t have been better.” The truth is I have no idea.
And I haven’t had an idea for a while now, truth to tell. There comes a time when you don’t see the whole picture at all anymore. When it becomes one big blur of distracting details and you know that, whatever it’s become, you just have to let it go. It’s like letting go of the back of the bicycle when you’re teaching your kid how to ride. It feels like she’s balanced, but you’ll never really know until you let go. Unfortunately, I remember the time I did this with my youngest daughter, Rachel. I let go and felt that heart-soaring moment as she took off on her own. The problem was, she was in a rage at me for the inadequacy of my teaching methods and realized, as she took off, that she could just keep going, running away from home in one clean burst of speed. And suddenly she was gone. My wife and I jumped into the car and went after her. We found her charging away down a truck route, huge semis whizzing by, determined but clearly afraid. We pulled alongside and asked her if she had enough money for lunch. She allowed as how she didn’t and that maybe she’d have to stay until tomorrow.
There’s always that unknown, when you let a show go. Will it stay upright? Will it take off in some direction that seems wrongheaded? If you’ve put it together right, probably not. The pieces will be too linked to twist apart. But I have done shows that have happily surprised me; I’ve come to see a show a month after letting go to find something very different. Moments transformed by some new inspiration that was not what I’d had in mind at all, but much, much better. You like to tell yourself that maybe you planted the seed that made that happen, but probably not.
I’ll be happy to set this show free. To not come around for a few weeks. And then to visit, hoping to see something new, something surprising. It’s a good, strong-willed group, and they’re speeding away even as I write this.