A few years back, when I was artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, we brought a show to Broadway that we had first performed in Seattle. We had done this a few times before, and I was wary. New York audiences are a trifle less patient than Seattle audiences, who always seemed to have a love of literature and were more than willing, in most cases, to hear a playwright out. I had found it necessary to make significant trims in new plays before setting them down before New Yorkers. In the case of this particular new play, however, I felt we had already achieved the perfect structure, and I could think of nothing to cut. Seattleites had sat attentively through a rather longish final act in which several interwoven stories were wrapping up. I thought it was all terribly moving and profound. At the first preview in New York, about 15 minutes before the final curtain, during the penultimate scene, a man sitting behind me groaned out as though in considerable pain, “End it!” He was not alone in his opinion. Quite a few people left before it was over. Miraculously, several significant cuts suddenly became apparent to me. Funny how seeing people fleeing a theater can sharpen one’s critical skills. The playwright and I realized we had too many endings; we eliminated whole scenes, we tightened the pace of the entire endeavor, and by opening night those impatient New Yorkers stayed firmly in their seats.
Imagine my trepidation, then, about bringing A Moon for the Misbegotten from Chicago to New York. This is not a short play. Not as long as The Iceman Cometh, but much more fragile and ruminative. And the Chicago audience was a little restless. Not terrible, but finding it hard to focus on this little play awash in their big barn of a theater. Christ! And now we have to face a bunch of jazzed-up, wired, demanding New Yorkers.
But the opposite seems to be true so far (knock wood) with this experience. Where we had to fight for the attention of the audience in Chicago, here in New York audiences seem eager to hear what O’Neill has to say. They sit in rapt attention through a very long first act, listening hard. These first few previews have certainly shaken my theory of the need for a New York quickstep. If anything, we’ve actually added time in New York. Hmmm. I should probably do something about that.
Of course, it’s not a new play; it’s O’Neill. Most savvy theatergoers know that they’re in for a longish night, and they’ve just had a remarkable four-and-a-half-hour Iceman last year to whet their appetites. They arrive knowing that they aren’t in for an easy time of it. When the stage manager makes the announcement about not taking photographs, I’m tempted to have him tell them to visit the bathroom or they might experience some discomfort during the 80-minute first act. But even without the warning, they make it through with hardly a whimper. Or most do. There are a few lost souls who can be seen at intermission wandering the theater like benumbed victims of a traffic accident. These are the people who have purchased tickets to see Gabriel Byrne because he was the one who kissed Winona Ryder in Little Women. Not the best audience for O’Neill. Maybe it’ll be good for them, though. To learn at last that one can fall from grace so easily; that it’s a fragile wall, indeed, between Louisa May and syphilitic alcoholism.
But there have been some major changes since Chicago. The set has come together impressively, and the lighting has become much more detailed, given that we now have an accommodating stage area. The great difference is that the actors can play at a human level, cradled in the embrace of the beautiful and intimate Walter Kerr Theatre. It’s a theater in which you can see the subtlest flicker of emotion in an actor’s eyes from the very back row, and the actors no longer have to strain or push. This is a play where people just sit around (sometimes lie around) and talk. At the Walter Kerr, the audience can eavesdrop. One wonders how so many awful theaters have been built in this country. When you think about it, a good theater shouldn’t be such a hard thing to come up with. It’s not as if the models aren’t there to be studied. There are at least 15 impressive specimens in the Broadway area alone. I think architects in this vain age have failed to consult the artists who will inhabit the space. They are interested only in displaying their wares. As if, when we go to the theater, we’re interested in looking at the theater. We’re not. We’re interested in looking at the play. A bad theater is one that gets in the way of our seeing the play. A truly good theater is one that creates the impression that everyone is in the same room, all focused on what’s important.